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The Season: No Rx to Curb Cable | HOWARD ROSENBERG
/ TELEVISION

The Networks: Few Risks in the Wasteland

September 16, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Hard times in Transylvania.

Sales pitches are wailing, church bells are ringing and yes, yes, Michael J. Fox is back, Bill Cosby is back and NBC's Saturday nights are "Dramatically Different!"

Minus the usual cranked-out hyperbole and paste-on happy faces, though, there's something curious about the segment of the television industry now facing its greatest challenge from cable. Perusing the humdrum routine of new series in the 1996-97 prime-time season that officially begins tonight, you see networks that suck each other's blood now also sucking wind. You see them prone in a coffin, awaiting the inevitable as if a stake had been driven through their hearts and doom was in the wings.

It may be. Perhaps their apparent resignation is justified, their hemorrhaging of viewers to cable is unstoppable, irreversible and even lethal, and the best they can hope for in the shadow of the 21st century is to turn inward and continue chewing on one another with worn-down teeth.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 17, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 3 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong photo--Darryl M. Bell was incorrectly identified as one of the actors in a photo of the UPN television series "Homeboys in Outer Space" that was published in Monday's Calendar. The actor shown with co-star Flex was Mel Jackson, who appeared in an early version of the series but was subsequently replaced by Bell.

For the record, experts predict that NBC again will dominate the prime-time Nielsen ratings, with ABC and CBS competing for second ahead of Fox, and WB and UPN still wee blips in the low-rent district. This battle for a shriveling universe brings to mind a comment someone made about recent power struggles inside Bob Dole's GOP presidential campaign: It's like fighting for deck chairs on the Titanic.

ABC, CBS and NBC didn't always have that sinking feeling. They ended the 1978-79 season, for example, with a combined 91% audience share in prime time. At the end of last season, however, the Big Three plus younger Fox had plunged to only a combined 65%, a 4% drop from the previous season. Without Fox, the networks' audience share for last season dips to 53%.

Based on the generally timid lineup of new shows they're introducing this fall, nothing prettier should be expected from the 1996-97 season.

Just as the Fox network has swiped viewers from ABC, CBS and NBC during its decade of life, so is burgeoning cable now an even bigger nemesis of them all. And it remains to be seen just how low they will sag. Will the networks ultimately settle for 40% of America? Twenty-five percent? A few drunks in a phone booth?

In any case, it's hard telling what has shrunk more, their audience or their imagination, in a fall season whose blur of 39 new prime-time network series includes nothing very distinctive or unusual. Yes, some pleasing new arrivals here and there, but no real head-turners or bracing eye-openers. When the most inventive series of the new season is UPN's interplanetary sendup "Homeboys in Outer Space," you know everyone is carefully drawing between the lines.

*

Instead of deploying risks and innovations to recapture viewers, the networks instead are shackling themselves to the status quo and channeling what little creativity they have left into devising cutting-edge ways to market the conventional.

This opinion is based on only a 38-series sample, of course. The highly promoted CBS comedy "Ink," with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, has been undergoing a radical make-over since its pilot was sent to the press. So if it turns out to be a spectacular, apologies will be in order.

Otherwise, a trio of act-alike new comedies symbolizes the overall formulaic uniformity of the fall season. They are NBC's "Mr. Rhodes" and WB's "Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher" and "The Steve Harvey Show." Each is a comedy about a hip teacher. Each teacher's unorthodox ways win over unruly students. Each teacher is encumbered by a disapproving bureaucracy. Each is ABC's "Welcome Back, Kotter" (1975-79) revisited.

Generally speaking, the fall lineup is a revisit.

Now the sweeter news: Just as past seasons have exhibited higher highs, prime time also has seen worse seasons, with lower lows. In fact, this one is not all that bad given that it has fewer clunkers than most, a thick midsection of watchable newcomers that have potential for improvement and several new series that are surely praiseworthy if not quite the stuff to build an evening around.

Heading the latter category is ABC's "Spin City," which reunites sitcom-skilled Fox (Michael J., not the network) with his "Family Ties" producer, Gary David Goldberg, in a very funny comedy casting him as the harassed deputy mayor of New York City. It has "hit" stamped all over it.

Sharing that high plateau is Cosby, who, in his new CBS comedy, "Cosby," premiering at 8 tonight, recaptures the flair he displayed for so many years in "The Cosby Show" on NBC. Rejoining him as the wife of his amusingly grumpy character is his former sitcom spouse, Phylicia Rashad.

Almost as inviting as these two series is "Pearl," the CBS comedy that opens at 8:30 tonight after "Cosby" and stars Rhea Perlman of NBC's "Cheers" fame as a dock supervisor whose enrollment at an elite university brings her into conflict with a despotic professor played by Malcolm McDowell.

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