Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

At Dawn of Television's 'Third Era,' Networks Already Feel the Heat Hard-Pressed by Cable, Syndicators, and Satellite Delivery, ABC,CBS, and NBC Are Embroiled in the Most Intense Ratings War Ever; the Result Is More Titillation, More Violence -- and Some Gems Series: TV NOW

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

At Dawn of Television's 'Third Era,' Networks Already Feel the Heat Hard-Pressed by Cable, Syndicators, and Satellite Delivery, ABC,CBS, and NBC Are Embroiled in the Most Intense Ratings War Ever; the Result Is More Titillation, More Violence -- and Some Gems Series: TV NOW

Article excerpt

PRODUCER Beth Polson, an Emmy-laden veteran of 20 years' experience with all three major networks, can't forget the conversation she had last February.

"I was pitching movie-of-the-week ideas to a top network exec when he said, 'Give me {a movie like} last Monday's,' " she recalls. Thumbing quickly through the TV Guide on her desk, she found the description of a techno-suspense-thriller that was panned by critics but reached a respectable 26 million households.

"I told him the script was horrible, the acting was horrible ... He said, 'I know,' " she recalls.

"Doesn't anyone care?" she asked.

"Not really," the executive replied.

Ms. Polson tells the story to indicate how the ratings-at-all-costs environment has engulfed network entertainment television as never before. Threatened from all sides -- by multichannel cable, satellite-delivery systems, syndicators, pre-recorded videos, and even computer applications -- the once-mighty ABC, CBS, and NBC are scrambling to hold audiences just as a revolution in the delivery of home entertainment bears down on them.

The panic to hold viewers is the motive behind what many feel -- and content analysts confirm -- are network programs containing more sexual explicitness, more violence, and cruder language. Because cable TV is not held to the standards that govern public-owned airwaves, cable programs can push the boundaries of taste and propriety without censorship -- and win viewers in the process.

"We can point to the explosion of cable in more daring handling of sexual material, nudity, and language by the conventional networks," says Garth Jowett, a University of Houston professor and author of several books on TV.

While ratings have always been important, the current "be watched or perish" concern with numbers is turning the world of television upside down, say producers, writers, and directors.

"What is happening is so sad," Polson says. "This is the largest tool of communication, and what contribution are we making?"

Grant Tinker, one of television's most experienced and respected producers and the former chairman of NBC, describes the challenges posed by today's accelerating competition, soaring costs, and corporate-investor mentality that favors quick profits over creativity and quality.

"If I arrived on the television production scene now and tried to start MTM {Mary Tyler Moore Productions}, I couldn't do it," Mr. Tinker says. (MTM produced some of TV's top programs, including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Lou Grant," "Hill St. Blues," and others.) The reasons: TV producers now must please wealthy backers, since networks no longer cover production costs, and network programmers insist that shows succeed almost immediately, rather than allowing for audiences to build. This takes a toll on creativity, Tinker says.

PARADOXICALLY, the hypercompetitive environment has had a secondary, positive effect. If panic and pressure are producing tons of dross, they also have created a fistful of jewels.

"Television is better now than it has ever been," says Howard Rosenberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for the Los Angeles Times, who also teaches television history at the University of Southern California. He mentions such shows as "Seinfeld," "Frasier," "The Larry Sanders Show," "NYPD Blue," "Homicide," "Ellen," and others. One has to be selective, he cautions. "Who made up this rule that television is supposed to divert us for seven hours a day?" he says. "Part of our complaint about TV as a wasteland is our own fault for not being selective enough."

"Television is moving in both directions at the same time," says Brian Stonehill, a media theorist at Pomona (Calif.) College. "On one side, they are learning to bring us such greatly packaged and aesthetically serious extravaganzas as 'The Three Tenors' or Alvin Ailey dancers. …

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