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Prospect of 'Safe' TV Season Harbors Scary Possibilities

Commentary: Viewers want shows spiced with quality, integrity, respect. But bland fare is the networks' staple.


I know a lot of people will be relieved to hear that the early word on the fall prime-time season is: "It's going to be a safe one."

After being assaulted this past season by programming that set new lows for standards of taste and decency, it's a natural reaction.

We all needed a break.

So, anticipating a brave new Big Brotherly world of V-chips and ratings, the four major networks--ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC--have apparently decided to make nice in prime time.

But I find the news a little frightening.

Why? Because I know the networks are--as one of ABC's big sitcoms for the fall suggests--"Clueless."

That's one of the reasons their combined audience keeps dropping--from a 44.2 rating and 72 share of TV households in the 1993-94 season and then a 41.9 rating and 69 share in 1994-95 to a 39.2 rating and 65 share this past season.

They don't seem to know the difference between a safe show and a good show.

I do. And I think you do, too.

But just in case somebody at the networks is reading, let's review: What is safe?

For a viewer: It means security. It means not worrying about what you're watching or who you're watching with--your wife, your mother, your father, your kids, the churchgoing neighbors. . . .

It means more than PG.

It means quality. It means integrity. It means consistency. It means treating a viewer with respect.

Unfortunately, from a network point of view, a safe show is usually--more than anything else--a show that's most likely to succeed.

That's why we're getting Bill Cosby, Ted Danson and Michael J. Fox next season. All are major TV stars from much-beloved series of the recent past who therefore guarantee what is known in the business as sampling--a look-see by viewers--and safety.

That's why we keep getting new series based on movies such as "Clueless." The networks are insecure. They don't even trust their own ideas.

All too often, a safe show in the distorted prism of network thinking is an innocuous show. A bland show. A show that doesn't take too many chances. A show that looks like a lot of other shows. Where are the safe shows?

There's safety and quality in ABC's "Home Improvement" and "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," in CBS' "Murphy Brown" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and in NBC's "Frasier." But there's only safety--network-style--in shows such as ABC's "Second Noah" and "Coach," CBS' "Dave's World" and "Diagnosis Murder" and NBC's "Caroline in the City."

Chances are, not too many of your prime-time favorites are on that "safe list."

That's because many of the best and most successful shows in recent TV history have not played it safe week after week.

Want a good show that's safe most of the time?

Try ABC's "Roseanne," NBC's "Seinfeld," "Mad About You" and "3rd Rock From the Sun" and Fox's "Party of Five."

A little riskier. . . .

Try NBC's "Friends" and CBS' "Cybill," Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "The Simpsons."

What the heck, give one of the newsmagazines a shot. Unsafe shows that are the best.

Programming with an eye toward the family--say from 8 to 9 weeknights--is one thing. But prime-time TV viewing is, perhaps more than ever, a grown-up sport.

Want to just throw all caution to the wind and watch a great show? A show that might have legitimate but nevertheless adult content? Shows that don't guarantee your viewing safety?

You're talking about my favorites now: "The X-Files" on Fox, ABC's "NYPD Blue" and "Murder One," NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," "Law & Order" and "ER."

That's the kind of television that makes me secure.

That makes me believe the networks can turn things around.

I don't want a safe season.

I want a good season.

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