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Death Throes

There's a moment in the Coen Brothers' "Fargo" where loser car salesman Jerry Lundegaard knows he's had it. There's nothing more he can do. The writing's on the wall. He's doomed. And he loses it, because he's finished with the list of rational things to do, and he's still coming up dry.

It may be a part of human nature -- that at that moment when you've realized that the decision is out of your hands, when you have to resign yourself to a fact you didn't particularly want to accept, you panic. It's the bargaining stage of grief. It's a final offensive in an unwinnable war.

It's being a TV network in the anxious summer of 1997.

For years, the networks have been in denial. They pretend that they still exist in a world in which there are only three predators. Don't want to watch Man From Atlantis or Three's Company? Then you've got to watch The White Shadow. It's the only other thing on.

The thing is, this hasn't been true for years. First it was because of cable TV. Then it was because of the Fox network. Then the rise of first-run syndication. Then the two new "fifth networks," UPN and WB. Then the enthralling grip of the World Wide Web.

The fact is, network ratings keep going down. NBC, in holding its place as the top-rated network, merely tread water in terms of ratings when compared to last year. The other networks dropped in the ratings. It happens every year.

So now we get the networks' desperate attempts to stop the slide. The final roars of the T. Rex before that juicy comet comes knocking down by the Yucutan.

Exhibit A is NBC's new summer ad campaign, in which the network begs audiences to watch its repeats and cast-offs. "If you haven't seen it," begs the network's announcer, "it's new to you!" Or, to put it another way: "For the love of God, please watch our lousy reruns."

If the networks were smart, at least they'd be trying to hold onto their viewers by abandoning all original programming for three months out of the year, as if all the network programmers pulled a Dan Rather and decided that their networks might as well go black. But they're perfectly willing to let their viewership bleed away, all the while figuring that the American viewing public is so stupid, they don't know the difference between a rerun and a first-run episode. Duh-huh! It's new to me!

Exhibit B is ABC, a network so frightened of losing viewers that it's decided to give up all pretenses and just pay people to watch. That's right -- beginning this fall, you'll be able to earn American Airlines flight miles by subjecting yourself to the video napalm that is the ABC fall line-up. Spend half an hour of quality time with the zany duo of Hiller & Diller? You've earned 1,000 miles! Of course, bribery may be the only way ABC will ever get anyone to watch their shows.

Of course, in order to quality for these mileage bonuses, you'll actually have to take quizzes about the content of your ABC shows. (ABC: It's like studying for school, except without the laughs!) Sample answer: "In this episode of Home Improvement, Tim did a wacky 'guy thing' without the permission of his wife, though his sons went along with it. In the end, Tim has to apologize to his wife, but only after his actions backfire on him, causing great mirth. Oh, and Al was in there, too."

Ding! You've won a free trip to Moline. Can the NBC-Coca-Cola "Must See TV Quiz Sweepstakes" be far behind?

Transforming into a large-scale Dialing for Dollars is all part of ABC's new ad campaign, all modeled around the slogan "TV is good" and targeted to what ABC programmer Jamie Tarses referred to as the "family of TV viewers." Or, to put it another way: "For the love of God, you're wasting your life watching TV anyway -- but we'll pay you for it!"

It's the 9th inning, the networks are trailing 14-2, and the opposition has just brought in their closer from the bullpen. Viewers are abandoning the television networks in droves, and the networks are trying anything to stop the bleeding. Pay people to watch? Hell, yes. Beg them to watch our reruns? Of course! Cast Bronson Pinchot in a wacky sitcom as a goofy alien nanny? Sure, why not?

And if Pinchot's Meego isn't the ultimate act of desperation by a confused and wounded network that's just realized it's as mortal as the rest of us, I don't know what is.


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