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TV NETWORKS FALL INTO LINE WITH THEIR NEW SEASON : Preseason Drum-Beating Drowns Out the Stately Pace of Past September Seasons, Veterans Say

September 09, 1985|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

"To everything there is a season," says Ecclesiastes.

In television, the season starts in September, when the new and returning wares of CBS, NBC and ABC are unveiled with far more hoopla than attended the first man to go over Niagara Falls in a beer firkin.

Such heavy drum-beating is the network norm now, but it's in sharp contrast to the way the seasons used to begin, says Sylvester (Pat) Weaver, who presided over NBC circa 1953-55, in TV's so-called Golden Era: "We didn't expect shows to fail, but we didn't do the kind of promotion they do now, all this insane carrying-on."

He was referring to the preseason blizzard of network "promos," those short, jazzy excerpts of coming prime-time series, and the musical battle cries of "We've Got the Touch!" from CBS, "Let's All Be There!" from NBC and ABC's "You'll Love It!"

NBC board chairman Grant Tinker, asked how all this hubbub compares to the early years of his career in the 1950s, readily admits that things were much calmer then.

"I think the competition is much more white-hot now than it ever was," he says. Back when ABC was new and still struggling, he recalls, the common industry saying was "that there were 2 1/2 networks. So if you were at NBC or CBS, you were fairly calm and content. There might be some (program) fallout in January, but the competition was not so keen as today."

Today, it is very keen. The 1985-86 season already is under way with scattered jump-the-gun premieres disguised as two-hour TV movies, something that has become the custom in recent years. However, the industry consensus is that the ratings race will formally start on Sept. 23, when true head-on competition commences.

Which raises a question. Why must the season always start in September?

Tradition, says Tinker. "It's when all the Parisians are back from the South of France," he solemnly explains, solemnly adding, "That probably makes as much sense as the first answer."

Weaver, who before leaving NBC in 1956 rose to the post Tinker now holds, concurs on the tradition theory. He says it harks back to the glory days of network radio in which he began (his work there included the memorable radio shows of the late Fred Allen).

But he disputes the long-held notion that Detroit determined when each season would start. September, Weaver says, was "the start of the season for everybody" with consumer goods to advertise, not just Motor City and its new fall line of cars.

Arnold Becker, a CBS-TV research vice president, also points out that the September starts of new seasons "have to do with the way people live. The way you should think about it is that when people aren't doing something else, they watch television.

"And they're doing something else in the summertime."

That's when television viewing levels are at their lowest point. Many observers, such as TV columnists, hold that these levels traditionally take a quantum leap upward after Labor Day, when viewers--at least in theory--return to their TV sets by the millions after summer vacations.

T'aint necessarily so, says Becker. He cites national estimates of Homes Using Television--HUT levels, as they're known in the trade--for the three networks in the summer, fall and winter of 1984 and through June this year.

The figures for prime-time viewing from August through September last year show no droves of returning viewers, unless you consider a 3.9% increase a drove.

Things went this way last year, according to his figures: In August, 54.3% of the nation's estimated 84.9 million TV households turned on and tuned in. In September, the viewing level rose to 58.2%. Up it went again in October and November, to 62.4% and 62.9%, respectively. Then it dropped slightly to 61.9% in December, which is when such drops usually occur, what with Christmas parties and such.

The peak viewing time last season? January and February. The percentages of homes using television then rose to 65% and 65.4%, respectively.

One would think that January or February, not September, would be the time major advertisers would want a season to start. Not so, Becker says:

"Indeed, this has been a source of frustration to the entire industry, not just the networks--that when our audiences are the highest, the advertisers are least interested."

He says the reason that advertisers generally like each season to start in September is that they're generally trying to prime the pump then for the traditional times of peak consumer buying during the Thanksgiving holiday period and before Christmas.

So, September it is again, with this new season bringing 71 new and returning series, plus great interest in whether NBC--No. 2 in prime-time ratings last season after nine years as No. 3--will edge out longtime front-runner CBS as No. 1.

There is almost equal interest in whether ABC can make a comeback, having slipped to third last season with an average Nielsen rating of 15.4, below NBC's 16.2 and a 16.9 for CBS.

The answers will start shaping up in late October, when viewing patterns emerge and network executives either beam or start popping Tums and giving bad news to producers, directors and stars.

For although to every thing there is a season, it also is written that there is "a time to keep and a time to cast away," and television is no exception.

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