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What, Me Worry?

"For six years I was a visitor to a distant celestial body, the planet Television... Six years later I left, awed by the peculiar wonders I encountered on this voyage... I learned that even if they lose money... the networks will preen when they win the prime-time ratings race, like three vain toughs battling for bragging rights to a street corner. I learned network officials can sound like cancer patients, who, after a rare peaceful night of sleep, delude themselves into believing their long nightmare is over."

-- Ken Auletta, Three Blind Mice

I cribbed all of that from my dog-eared paperback copy of Three Blind Mice), Ken Auletta's chronicle of how ABC, CBS and NBC fiddled as cable TV, declining ratings and a growing number of leisure time choices sacked the networks' respective kingdoms, ransacking the treasuries and making off with the women.

A quick glance at the copyright info indicates that the paperback edition came out sometime in 1992. I bring this up because six years later -- and just about a decade after Auletta got the idea for Three Blind Mice -- Auletta's original thesis still stands: Network TV is in a world of shit, with executives, programmers and assorted hangers-on baffled as to how to extricate themselves from the mire. You could put out a new version of Three Blind Mice and not have to change a word of the original manuscript... except, of course, for the title. With Fox's rise to respectability, there's now a fourth blind mouse in the rat race, every bit as near-sighted and deluded as its older, struggling compatriots.

Something other than unprompted malice prompts that rather harsh conclusion -- even if unprompted malice is something I've got in spades. A weekend of reviewing the new programs on tap for this season in anticipation of TeeVee's annual Dead Pool Spectacular has me hightailing it to the closest Barnes & Noble to stock up on reading material for the long autumn ahead. The new shows inspire neither fear nor dread so much as they do resignation, a been-there-done-that sort of feeling in a season where nearly every premise has all the freshness of coffee brewed the day before. It's enough to drive a man to turn to the bottle. Or at least to PBS, which is much, much worse.

Adding to my ire is a recent article in the Los Angeles Times) -- the paper of record should you happen to be living in Los Angeles. To mark the start of the TV seasons, the Times gathered together representatives of the four TV networks -- CBS Television President Leslie Moonves, Fox Television President David Hill, ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg and the phenomenally evil Don Ohlmeyer, NBC's West Coast President -- and peppered them with questions about the state of television in this, the one thousand nine hundred and ninety-eighth year of our Lord.

Pestered about declining viewership, the emergence of cable and creative atrophy, the four network suits came off sounding like a bunch of ardent high school suitors, still making a play for the prom queen long after she's switched to an unlisted number, moved to a new home and filed the appropriate restraining orders.

Or, as Leslie Moonves put it, "Erosion is a problem that we're all addressing, but perception is also a problem. Cable has done a better job of selling themselves than we have. Rarely do you see positive network stories about quality, about the number of viewers. Instead, the erosion stories seem to overwhelm us."

"It's almost like it's become 'uncool' to write about anything good on television," sniffed Don Ohlmeyer, who, we must remember, is phenomenally evil.

So to summarize the networks' argument -- and what an argument it is -- the big problem TV faces is that nattering nabobs of negativity like the L.A. Times and Entertainment Weekly and, yes, even third-rate Web sites like TeeVee keep harping on all the bad stuff without mentioning any of the good. Like Profiler. And "World's Deadliest Swarms." And this week's "Jag-a-thon" on CBS. And you readers -- being the gullible, easily fooled sheep that you are -- read our hateful words and conclude that, yes indeed, TV is a wasteland beyond all comprehension.

If Les and Don and the rest of the boys are right, and I hold this awesome suasion over the mass of readers out there, let me just take this opportunity to remind you all that I'm an indescribably handsome man, you all owe me money and that the Detroit Red Wings will three-peat this year. Capiche, Mike Modano?

But getting back to television, the four wise men's principal beef seems to be that to compare network TV nowadays with what was on the air, say, 20 years ago is like comparing George Clooney to George "Goober" Lindsey. Two decades ago, everyone had six channels on a good day... and that was only after convincing Uncle Kenny to stand out on the patio with that tin foil on his head. Nowadays, if you only can dial in six channels, you're on the phone to the cable company raising holy hell.

Ah, cable. That's what really roasts the marshmallows of Moonves, et. al. Here they are, these four network fellows, churning out programming every week to hundreds of millions of viewers. And then cable comes along with only a fraction of the audience but steals all the thunder.

"'Moby Dick' was a great movie that would have placed behind 'Teen Angel' (in the ratings)," Bloomberg grouses. "It was viewed by 10 million people, and we canceled 'Teen Angel.'"

The law firm of Moonves, Hill, Bloomberg and Ohlmeyer would have you believe that the fault lies not in the stars, but in the semantics. And they have a legitimate gripe... up to a point.

Yes, the networks face a more crowded field today than they did a generation or two ago. The advent of VCRs, DVD, Nintendo 64 and the Internet have given American families what they've been craving since pioneer days: cheap and ready access to ample pornography. And for all its Larry Sanders Shows and Sportscenters and cheap and ready access to ample pornography, cable TV attracts just a smidgen of audience that turned in to watch a dog of a show like Meego -- with most of cable's audience tuning in for pro wrestling anyhow.

But that argument only goes so far. No matter how long the four network amigos hoot and holler about the unfairness of it all, they're still hemorrhaging viewers at a breakneck pace. Like the Black Knight in "Monty Python & the Holy Grail," the networks keep getting one limb after another hacked away, only to insist that it's just a flesh wound.

From 1976 to when Auletta wrote Three Blind Mice in the early '90s, the Big Three Networks lost one out of three viewers. That trend has only continued as the decade has droned on. Last month, for the first time ever, cable grabbed a bigger share of the audience than broadcast TV. And that has to smart if you're running ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox, pro wrestling programs or no.

Not that the network honchos are feeling too much pain -- a strong showing of denial will mask that, thank you very much.

Wondering why the established networks aren't putting on any shows like Dawson's Creek lately? "Ironically, with all the ballyhoo about Dawson's, we have this little show, Boy Meets World, whose teen numbers are stronger, but you never hear about it," notes Bloomberg, perhaps rhetorically.

Puzzled as to why so much of TV seems to be a collection of Friends knock-offs, cop'n'lawyer shows and failed Tony Danza pilots? Think network TV is little more than a vast wasteland of suckiness? Well, you're wrong, my friend -- dead wrong. And Don Ohlmeyer is here to tell you so.

"There are more terrific shows on television today than ever in the history of television," the not-at-all-given-to-exaggeration NBC executive proclaims. And just so we don't think he's gone mad with power, Ohlmeyer adds, "When the history of television is written, the '90s will be the kind of Golden Age of quality programs."

Apparently, Don hasn't been watching his own network on Monday nights. But I'm sure Satan will take care of that punishment soon enough, once he comes a-callin' for Don's soul as per that contract the two of them signed many years ago.

"Oh sure, Michaels," more than a few of you are probably saying, assuming you're not, in fact, a bunch of deaf mutes. "Pick on the poor network executives. Real big of you. I mean, Ohlmeyer I can understand since he is, in fact, unspeakably evil. But what did Leslie Moonves ever do to you? And if you're so smart, college boy, what would you do so different?"

Well. Glad you asked.

For starters, I wouldn't treat my programming lineup like a rotisserie baseball lineup -- spending millions to develop and promote a show only to yank it after one airing because not a high enough percentage of the 18- to 45-target audience tuned in to suit me. I would let the shows that I decided were good enough to broadcast back in May limp through the season until they either built an audience or died under the weight of their own ineptitude. Not every show is like ER, bursting out of the ratings gate like a racehorse doped up on wowie pills. Most are like Seinfeld, which jumped from time slot to slot like a badminton shuttlecock or Cheers, which had lower ratings than The Love Boat, Gloria and That's Incredible!

If I were a network muckety-muck with millions upon millions of dollars at my disposal, I would act like it. I would pony up for big events, big writing and producing talent, big ideas. I would send to the gallows the first TV producer who tried to pitch my on a show starring Ted Danson as a fast-talking judge or a rock star or an Indian chief or something... just as a warning to others. I would put on shows that I wouldn't mind, on occasion, watching.

And I would cut back Dateline NBC to two nights. Three, tops.

The result? A spectacular failure, probably. People would love to see Ted Danson as a judge or rock star or Indian chief or something. I have terrible taste in TV shows. America is clamoring for, not just a fifth night of Dateline, but a sixth and seventh night and maybe even an eighth day of the week -- Datelineday -- in which shots of Stone and Jane and the kids would just air from dawn to dusk.

But the point is, I would at least fail doing what I wanted. The big cheeses at the Big Four are failing by kowtowing to some middle-of-the-road sensibility in Middle America that just doesn't exist anymore... it if ever did at all.

Enough negativity, though. That's what's really dragging TV down -- big bummer-rummer articles like this one. From now on, I'm just going to kick back, ram a whaling harpoon through my frontal lobe and just savor the flavor of what network TV has to offer. I think I'll start right now by watching a few Suddenly Susan episodes back-to-back.

Don Ohlmeyer tells me that's quality, baby, and who am I to argue?


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