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THE SWEEPS FOLLIES | HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

The Season for 'All-New' Shows and All-Show News

May 14, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Get ready for the following announcement when the 1997-98 prime-time season arrives in the fall: "Tonight on NBC, an all-new 'Veronica's Closet'!"

"Veronica's Closet" is one of eight new series coming to NBC next season. So calling its premiere "all-new" would be redundant. Which is not to say it couldn't happen in an age when TV networks are trying mightily to sell themselves as benevolent and their shrinkage of first-run episodes as something positive.

Talk about spin. Did you catch NBC last Thursday? What an extraordinary evening: An all-new "Friends" followed by an all-new "Suddenly Susan" followed by an all-new "Seinfeld" followed by an all-new "Fired Up" followed by an all-new "ER."

Whoopee. As if "new" episodes of weekly series were gifts that viewers should be grateful for instead of something they should expect.

The "scam of all-new," as Los Angeles reader F.D. McMillan aptly titled it in a recent letter, is so pervasive in prime time that it's become routine, so much a part of television that most viewers accept it as part of the furniture. Like other things on TV, the more it hangs around, the more accustomed you get to it.

"Only a short while ago, a new season meant a new season," McMillan writes. "Now we get one or two new episodes, then one or two reruns, followed by big promotions of 'an all-new (fill in the blank),' as if it were something truly wonderful! It's the new season, for God's sake, it should be all new!"

Instead, what we have here is chutzpah gone amok. As McMillan also notes, networks make such a big deal of "all-new" that they deploy the designation as a glittery come-on to lure viewers during May and other ratings sweeps months. "We've gone from a new episode being normal," he adds, "to an 'all-new' episode being something special, to now an 'all-new' episode being the height of special."

One viewer's outrage is not necessarily typical. In fact, it's somewhat anomalous that Americans seem at once increasingly worldly about the TV universe--the four monthlong "ratings sweeps" periods used to be obscure reference points heeded only by industry insiders, for example--and desensitized to its less savory tactics.

On the phone in that regard recently was a woman, age 84, sounding resigned to the status quo. "After sweeps," she said, "I guess they'll go back to showing reruns." Bank on it. Instead of reruns, though, they will be euphemistically titled "encores," as if viewers were demanding to see them again.

Repetition breeds familiarity, which breeds viewer indifference.

That applies also to another "ratings sweeps" phenomenon: the venerable cross-promotion tactic that finds TV news operations routinely inflating, stressing and even fabricating stories solely to benefit themselves and their parent companies.

Registering a whopping 10 on the Shoddiness Scale, this unethical practice used to draw at least occasional protests from viewers, witness the calls that came in when KCBS-TV Channel 2 allowed Geraldo Rivera--whose talk show precedes its late afternoon news bloc--to co-anchor a newscast following the Los Angeles riots sparked by the first Rodney King verdict five years ago. But that resistance has been replaced by apathy.

Even when the sins are blatant and shrill--as in KNBC-TV Channel 4's and KABC-TV Channel 7's this week extending the daytime war between "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to their respective 4 p.m. newscasts, which rely heavily on these syndicated 3 p.m. talk shows as lead-ins to deliver viewers.

Although Winfrey's Chicago-based show remains top-rated nationally, she is taping it here this week, hoping to reclaim the Los Angeles ratings lead she has lost to the surging O'Donnell. As part of the "backstage pass" promised by the station, Monday's Channel 7 News found reporter Adrienne Alpert fawning over Oprah during a benefit 5K run last weekend. "The queen of talk showed her stamina and strength," Alpert giddily reported. "Tomorrow, Oprah takes us inside some celebrity homes that are for sale. . . . "

Hardly to be outdone, meanwhile, was Channel 4, whose weather forecaster, Fritz Coleman, continued his sweeps-long "All About Rosie" series. Monday's "exclusive look" at the New York show took him even into the bowels of the makeup room. "We'll pick up right here tomorrow," he promised. You could bet the mortgage on it.

Yet even that chauvinistic volcano was almost a slow leak compared with a Channel 4 newscast Thursday that managed to promote a record five NBC series--"3rd Rock From the Sun," "Seinfeld," "Friends," "ER" and "Naked Truth"--during an incredible seven-minute eruption under the banner of news. And that little frenzy didn't include Coleman's obligatory report on O'Donnell that night or his own promotion of his station-promoting series during an earlier weather forecast: "Our Rosie O'Donnell piece today is fascinating."

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