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What America Watches--and Why : Geography is often a key to a show's ratings, critics say

August 06, 1989|DANIEL CERONE

In the infancy of television, many people had their first magical glimpse of a broadcast in a neighbor's house. Others caught the spreading TV contagion from the set over the bar in the neighborhood tavern. But no matter where they watched it, people generally watched television together.

On Tuesday evenings in 1948, there was a sense that Americans who could find their way to one of the roughly 900,000 TV sets in the country were gathered together like a huge family to watch crackling transmissions of "The Milton Berle Show."

Such a sense of community is mostly gone in television today. It was fragmented when lower-priced TV sets flooded the market and new technologies revolutionized the broadcast industry. In 1948, a boxy, small-screen, black-and-white TV set cost as much as $400 (more than $1,700 in 1989 dollars); for $400 now you can buy a quality 20-inch, color monitor with stereo reception.

There are 90.4 million television households now--98% of American homes--many of them with two or three TV sets. Of those households, 62% have at least one VCR, and 56% receive cable television, which in some cases provides more than 40 additional viewing choices.

With so many sets and so many viewing options, what is America tuning in to now--and, more specifically, why? That was the question tossed to a clan of TV critics, gathered in Los Angeles for the television industry's annual summer press tour.

Among their insights about TV viewing habits in their respective markets: "Beauty and the Beast" has a huge following in Pittsburgh. New Yorkers flip channels a lot. Many people in Dallas don't like "Dallas." In Birmingham, Ala., viewers love Andy Griffith reruns. A disproportionate number of TV writers and producers hail from Buffalo, N.Y. Arsenio Hall goes over big in Kansas City.

"This is one of the greatest democracies going--television I'm talking about, not the United States," said television critic Mark Dawidziak of the Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio. "Everybody has an opinion about television and everybody is going to give you that opinion through what they watch.

"Cable has diversified television to the extent that if you like sports, news, movies or music, there's an entire channel for you. The VCR has completed that democratic equation. Now, you not only have a lot more choices, but you don't have to watch a show when broadcasters tell you to watch it. You can watch it when you want to watch it."

The critics' comments suggested that when it comes to television, America is not a melting pot but rather a salad bowl in which everyone's viewing tastes and preferences are tossed together.

With the proliferation of cable channels and increases in local programming, the major networks no longer are unchallenged rulers of the TV airwaves. The networks are steadily losing their audience. A look at A.C. Nielson Co. figures reveals that the networks drew only 68% of the total television audience during prime time in the 1988-89 television season, compared to 92% 10 years ago.

Some critics say that the networks are missing their mark and that the failure rate for new shows is well over 80%. One reason, they suggest, is that most network shows are written and produced in either New York or Los Angeles and thus display a coastal attitude that viewers in other parts of the country cannot identify with.

"There's an old joke: What is America to a network executive? It's what he flies over while traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast," said Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg.

"All of television reflects a very white, middle-class mentality because those are the people who control television," Rosenberg said. "Everything made for commercial television is seen through the prism of its makers."

Said Robert Strauss of the New Jersey-based Asbury Park Press: "The networks still draw millions of viewers, so they must know something. But it still seems to be a vastly New York-Los Angeles world that we see on television. Because the shows are created mostly in New York and Los Angeles, all the references, the locales and the settings exist in those areas."

Philadelphia Tribune writer Larry Wexler said: "ABC is coming out with Jackie Mason's new show this fall. It's called 'Chicken Soup.' I don't think it's going to do real well. It's about a Jewish guy and a Gentile woman, and Mason's type of humor is urban, more sophisticated. It might do fine in New York or Philadelphia, but I don't think it will play in Dubuque, Iowa, and smaller towns like that. They just won't get it."

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