They've prepped their programs, fine-tuned their schedules and plugged in their promo campaigns.
Now, the most the programming czars at the three major networks can do--at least until the first round of cancellations--is book front-row seats for the prime-time ratings race. That . . . and worry.
So, with the fall season about to begin, which new shows on their competitors' lineups do Lewis Erlicht of ABC, Brandon Tartikoff of NBC and B. Donald (Bud) Grant of CBS fear most?
"We're nervous about them all," Grant, whose top-rated network can feel NBC's breath on its back, admitted Tuesday to members of the Hollywood Radio & Television Society.
"We're nervous about 'Amazing Stories' on NBC," ABC's Erlicht told the lunchtime crowd at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. "CBS . . . we're not nervous about CBS." After the laughter died down, Erlicht acknowledged that he considered CBS' "The Equalizer" a strong new show--to which Grant, sitting next to him, nodded in agreement.
"Moonlighting" and "The Colbys" on ABC and CBS' all-new "The Twilight Zone" could give NBC's Tartikoff sleepless nights. The latter, he said, "should open to big numbers as our 'Amazing Stories' should, and then we'll see how the public's appetite is for anthology series."
Though that brief list may not necessarily constitute a Professional's Choice of Most-Watchables, it does indicate the territory on which the Big Three's battle lines will be drawn in prime time.
Yet, dining side-by-side on boneless chicken breast and spinach fettuccine, the three entertainment presidents appeared more like gentlemen farmers discussing rainfall projections than cutthroat prime-time competitors.
In fact, when they weren't trying to outscore each other on the laugh meter (Erlicht to Tartikoff: "Did you get a car phone when you were in third place . . . ?") the trio demonstrated remarkable unity on issues relevant to network TV's survival.
On the subject of miniseries, for example. "All three of us have done too much of them," Grant said. "There are too many on the air and they are not special enough." Erlicht added that when the networks started promoting as miniseries "two-part, four-hour movies," the public became skeptical of the format.
Tartikoff noted that miniseries, in their heyday, represented a significant hedge against the cable services and videocassettes that continue to erode network TV's ratings. "Without getting into collusion," he said, miniseries should be "protected" and not aired against each other.
Another area the three agreed could use bolstering is summer programming. Because viewership typically decreases during rerun season--when movie going simultaneously rises--Erlicht suggested that "the networks should strive for original programming all year round." "We are in a 52-week business," Grant agreed.
Tartikoff said that the summer represented a chance for "somewhat experimental" shows, but noted that they're going to have to start in late May--before viewers get out of the TV-viewing habit--instead of July and August, as has recently been the case.
Other luncheon tidbits:
--Jack Klugman will star in a mid-season comedy entry on NBC. Klugman, who spent eight seasons as "Quincy" on the same network, will play a divorced man who renews his relationship with his son after a long separation.
--CBS will buy programs from MGM-TV if warranted, despite the bitter and costly battle the network had to wage against the studio's new owner-to-be, Ted Turner.
--CBS is trying to balance its schedule in search of some slightly younger viewers.