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Tossed About in TV's Rough Waters

The conflicting needs of networks, creators, viewers and critics has resulted in a season of disconnections.

September 17, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

Considering the big buzzword regarding television's future is "convergence"--referring to that mystical day when TV, computers and the Internet will coalesce, skipping in unison out of the same little box--it's somewhat ironic to note the coming television season just might qualify as the most disconnected in years.

Disconnected, that is, in the sense that TV's various constituencies increasingly appear at odds with each other--except, perhaps, for those brought together in big dysfunctional families as a byproduct of industry mergers and consolidation.

The most traditional connection--between program and viewer--has clearly become tougher to forge in this modern age of cable and satellite dishes, bringing the average home roughly five dozen channels. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor" underscore television's enduring ability to unite millions of people in a common entertainment pursuit, but fragmentation remains the order of the day, with a network catering to virtually every taste.

The evidence of this can be seen less in relation to hits than prime-time failures, which have dropped like a hangman's platform. Paul Kagan Associates, a media analysis firm, compiled ratings for the top 10 and bottom 10 shows on ABC, CBS and NBC during the last two decades. While ratings for the top shows declined significantly (from more than 25% of U.S. households on average in 1980 to less than 15% today), steady growth in the number of homes means those programs still reach a vast audience of 17 million viewers or more.

The drop is more precipitous, however, among the Big Three's bottom 10, from 12% of homes in 1980--when most people received just a handful of channels and thus watched the three networks by default--to less than 5% in 2000, or about 6.5 million viewers, underscoring that broadcasting still relies on a level of critical mass that goes beyond virtually any other medium.

What those numbers add up to, in TV circles, is a sobering reality: If you build it, viewers will still come. And if people don't like it, they will be gone before you can say the third syllable of "remote control."

Coupled with the uncertainty brought about by technological advancements that keep cropping up, this dynamic has fed a feeling of hysteria and conflict within the television business, fueling acrimony among its many factions.

The most potentially damaging disconnect involves the major network-studios and the unions representing actors and writers, who enter the new prime-time season with the specter of strikes looming ominously on the horizon. The threat of work stoppages in 2001 means that even if the networks manage to catch lightning in a bottle with some new scripted series, any celebration could be short-lived.

Always a curmudgeonly group, TV writers seem more disenchanted with the system than ever before, convinced the corporations writing them checks don't really care if they have exciting dramas and amusing comedies to offer the public and are content to make a buck with unscripted "reality" series and prime-time newsmagazines.

In a more nebulous way, networks are also less connected to viewers, with broadcasters balancing the need to garner the biggest audience against other financial considerations--taking into account everything from merchandising and licensing to production costs and ownership. Appealing to the most viewers, under this system, isn't always as important as how well a program sells overseas or who cashes in if a series becomes TV's next money machine, a la "Seinfeld" or "Home Improvement."

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Relations between the major networks and the affiliated TV stations that air their programming have also taken a beating, as networks struggle with how to address the future. Affiliates, specifically, fret about networks repeating programs within days or sometimes hours of their initial telecast, often on sister channels.

As an example, you can currently find selected NBC programs--including "The NBC Nightly News"--later the same day on the Pax TV network, in which NBC holds a 32% ownership stake; or catch NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" on the USA cable channel.

Broadcasters say they must recognize shifting viewing patterns and seek ways to help finance production in a fragmented marketplace. To affiliates, however, such deals rob stations of their exclusive claim to being "the home of NBC" programs in a given city.

Another level of disconnect, based on recent seasons, exists between television critics and viewers. Last year, critics had little positive to say before the season began about CBS' "Judging Amy" and "Family Law," which both became surprise successes, continuing a pattern established in 1999 by NBC's "Providence"--another "soft" drama about an independent young woman facing new challenges--and before that CBS' "Touched by an Angel."

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