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Is network TV going the way of the dinosaur?

State of television

Network TV is in trouble -- right?

Web posted on: Thursday, October 22, 1998 11:20:59 AM EDT

A NewsStand: CNN & Entertainment Weekly report
From Correspondent Judd Rose

NEW YORK (CNN) -- To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of the network TV has been greatly exaggerated.

Sure, cable programs are getting better, and there are more of them from which to choose. And yes, the cost of buying quality shows is at an all-time high: $13 million an episode for "ER." And no question, the audience continues to shrink as all the networks go after the same audience: younger viewers.

But even with all those problems, the big three -- NBC, ABC, and CBS -- are still the ones to watch, as the 1998 fall season gets under way.

Don Ohlmeyer, NBC West Coast president

It boils down to this

To understand what has changed in network TV, let's be frank.

"Somebody goes to a store and there's only, you know, three brands of hot dogs, they only have three choices to make," says Don Ohlmeyer, NBC West Coast president. "They go to a store and there's 100 brands of hot dogs ... now they start getting into the color of the packaging."

That's what it boils down to for the top dogs, NBC, CBS and ABC. Viewers have more choice from cable and the newer networks -- Fox, UPN and WB -- forcing the big boys to face fewer viewers, rising costs and shrinking profits.

So now, three weeks into the new season, are the networks really affected by all the change? It's still hard to tell.

For instance, in the first two weeks of the new season, it was reported that NBC's audience was down 11 percent from the same time last year. This past week, the network reported that Nielsen ratings were down 16 percent on its coveted Thursday nights.

That's where "Seinfeld" used to reign. NBC moved its Tuesday night hit, "Frasier," to Thursdays, replacing "Seinfeld," hoping for similar numbers.

"Frasier"'s doing well, but not as well as Jerry, and by moving "Frasier," the network's hurt itself on Tuesday.

"Veronica's Closet" gets a good share rating, but doesn't compare on the hype-meter to "South Park"

NBC panic?

So, NBC is in trouble, right? It depends on how you read the TV leaves. For instance, a show's success is based, in part, on its share: the percentage of viewers tuning in.

"'Veronica's Closet' will do a 27 share on a Thursday night and it's dismissed," says Ohlmeyer. "And (Comedy Central's) 'South Park' does a two share and it's on the cover of 'Newsweek' magazine."

Of course, Ohlmeyer knows that is the case because the shows that get the media buzz target TV's most desired viewers: ages 18 to 49. They're supposedly the most likely to buy what's sold on commercials.

"I don't understand that, because nobody, like, 18 owns a house or a Lexus," says Joe Queenan, a writer for "TV Guide." "I would have thought that the target group would be somewhat older, but the problem is that young guys who drink beer will watch anything, whereas people who have real lives -- adults, they're out in the Lexus, spinning around -- they're not going to stay home and watch 'The Brian Benben Show' or something like that."

And consider: The one network that has traditionally gone for older viewers, CBS, led the prime time ratings for the first two weeks of the season. Industry analysts think that's due to CBS getting back NFL football.

"That's the thing that always gets me," Queenan says. "We have to have football, because you reach young guys who drink beer."

Bob Iger, ABC president

'Networks are in trouble'

Dependent on research and ratings, the networks go for the same, predictable shows with the same, predictable stars.

"I think networks are in trouble if they continue to do business the same way," says ABC president Bob Iger. "If networks are willing, and this one is, to do business differently, then I don't think we're in trouble at all."

For all the talk about risk, many observers say the biggest surprise is how risk-averse this season is compared to last year.

"'Ally McBeal' was a totally different kind of television, and you would've thought that there would've been a slew of, sort of, strange, quirky 'Ally McBeal' imitators, but they didn't," says Queenan. "They just put on a bunch of old, recycled sitcoms."

Recycling the past won't change the present. Times are different for the major networks, and lately, all three have endured big budget cuts and layoffs. But make no mistake -- there's still a tremendous amount of revenue being generated. Some estimates put it at $14 billion a year.

So, as the fall season goes on, the networks have plenty of cash, but they desperately need change.

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