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Change Is On The Air

Los Angeles Times
August 30, 1998

Change Is on the Air

Four top network executives look to a future filled with uncertainty, opportunity and the necessity to evolve.


It's seemingly been a summer of discontent for the major television networks.
Combined ratings have slid to record lows, renewing questions about broadcasting's future amid the plethora of choices now available to most viewers via cable, satellite dishes and the Internet, with digital TV and other technological advances on the horizon.
Looking back no further than Richard Nixon's presidency, the percentage of audience watching ABC, CBS and NBC in prime time has fallen from roughly 90% to 47%. Even including Fox, which came into being a dozen years ago, the networks have totaled a mere 44% of viewing during the dog days of August--for the first time slipping behind the aggregate audience for cable.
Though the four networks still garner a majority of viewers and advertising dollars on a year-round basis, cable channels--which generate additional revenue from subscriber fees--often make larger profits and have been eager to help perpetuate the image of the networks in retreat, hoping to translate those ratings inroads into a bigger slice of the advertising pie.
The networks, meanwhile, continue to draw the lion's share of fire from TV's critics, targeting such matters as the quality of their programming and relaxed standards in their content. Adding insult to injury, some reviewers have already dismissed this year's class of new shows as the worst in recent memory.
Yet does their declining audience reflect failure on the networks' part, or an inexorable fact of life in a rapidly changing business that undermines the concept of broadcasting by offering a channel tailored to every possible taste?
With the new television season set to begin in a few weeks, The Times assembled four top executives from the major networks--ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg, Fox Television President David Hill, CBS Television President Leslie Moonves and NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer--to discuss whether the networks, in navigating the shark-filled sea of options nibbling at their ratings, will remain TV's big fishes or become its dinosaurs.
Getting the four into a room together at the Four Seasons Hotel in mid-August, when schedules are filled with new-series tapings and run-throughs, required more diplomacy than went into the Yalta accords. While the discussion centered on audience erosion and what the networks can do about it, the executives also managed to ponder such matters as when to cancel a show, if this is television's "Golden Age," and whether the WB's teen-oriented "Dawson's Creek" would survive on a major network.

* * *
The Times: With all of the doom-and-gloom predictions, how do you feel looking ahead at the future of network television?
Ohlmeyer: It's clear that it is not a three-channel universe anymore, and for people not to recognize that is sometimes amusing. To expect that as many people would watch three channels when there are 200 channels as when there were only three channels is a little bit bizarre.
We have lost share [of audience] over two decades, as cable and satellites and everything else has expanded. The business, like any other business, will adapt or it won't, and the people who adapt best will be the most successful. The car companies faced the same problems when the Japanese cars came in and undercut Detroit's basic monopoly. You had the same problem with radio, when the formats changed. What you're seeing played out is intelligent, hard-working people trying to figure out how to adjust. . . . Different networks are adjusting in different ways.
Moonves: Television is one of the few businesses that is looked at today exactly as it was 30 or 40 years ago. . . . Every other business is looked at in terms of where it is today, how it has evolved. There are still newspapers that [refer to] "the Big Three" networks. The Big Three hasn't been the Big Three for 20 years. It's been the Big Four, then the Big Six, now the Big 40.
Ownership has changed drastically since those days 30 or 40 years ago, when it was smaller companies built around the networks--the days of [CBS founder] Bill Paley and [ABC architect] Leonard Goldenson and people like that. Right now, they are owned by major corporations, and everybody's doing business in a different way. . . . The network business can be and is a good business; it's just we have to do things differently.
Hill: I'll take it a different way and go back to Samuel Clemens: The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated.
If you look at what network television can do, in spite of everything else, it is still the only area for shared [national] community involvement. Look at the level of creativity that's on [display] every single night across the board against huge competition. The fact that it didn't disappear 10 or 12 years ago is remarkable. If the question is, "Is there a future for network television?," absolutely.
Ohlmeyer: We may be the only business in America where people just want to take a snapshot in time, when it's not that way anymore. "The reason people aren't watching broadcast television is a lack of creativity." Well, that's bull----. There are more terrific shows on television today than ever in the history of television.
Hill: In a way, the consumer now has more control over what they watch on network television than ever before. It really is in the hands of the consumer now.
Moonves: We're still the best game in town. Nowhere else can you get a Super Bowl, Academy Awards, "Merlin" or "60 Minutes," which beat the heck out of cable week after week, and yet all they're writing about is erosion and lack of creativity, which is pure bunk.
Bloomberg: "Moby Dick" [which aired on cable's USA Network] was a great movie that would have placed behind "Teen Angel" [in the ratings]. It was viewed by 10 million people, and we canceled "Teen Angel."
* * *
The Times: Is part of the problem that the cost structure is out of whack? You can get a big audience if you do a "Merlin," but the cost starts to become prohibitive?
Ohlmeyer: It's not an issue of cost. Cost is an excuse. . . . The central thing that everybody forgets is, this is the greatest time in the history of communication for the guy at home. The guy at home can watch "ER"--he can watch it at the time it's shown, he can watch it on videocassette, he can plug into the Web site. These choices never existed before.
The whole reason for a network existing has changed. . . . The newspaper used to exist because people would get up in the morning and read what happened yesterday. They would read the sports section and see who won the game the night before. When television news came into play, people no longer needed the newspaper to find out who won the game, so the newspapers had to make an enormous adjustment in terms of what they put on those pages.
That's what television is doing. . . . Those of us who do it well will flourish, and those of us that do it poorly will not.
Hill: Probably the most fundamental change in programming philosophy came with the invention of the remote. Everyone used to talk about a "flow of programming" through the night, and that was because of sheer inertia--if you [didn't like] a program that followed a popular program, you had to physically get up and walk across the room to change the channel, so that then gave rise to the theory of the "least unacceptable programming."
As soon as the remote was invented, that put the viewer in charge, because the theory of audience flow through the night was gone.
Moonves: This is a very significant point in time. The last generation is a generation that grew up with television as the main source of entertainment in their home . . . before we were deluged with cable, with the Internet, with all these other things coming into our home. Once again, it's an opportunity for the evolution of the medium, because it's a very different medium then it's ever been before.
Hill: The first generation that invented this medium is still alive. Look at any other art form that's existed, and television is the baby.
Moonves: But it's a baby that's growing up awfully fast, and evolving into something very different.
Hill: I think we're going to look at television in 20 years and it's going to be totally different than what we're seeing today.
* * *
The Times: Isn't that frightening, based on where you're sitting now?
Hill: No, it's unbelievably exciting, because network television still controls the most creative people in the world. In reality, this is probably the most exciting time ever in the history of network television.
Bloomberg: Just because there are other areas--whether it's the Internet or cable--that doesn't mean that great programming can't originate at the network, then be enhanced on the Internet and have a whole new interactive [element], or go on to cable.
We're now developing Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters," and one of the things that we're talking about is, in addition to doing the miniseries, our news department would produce documentaries that would run concurrently on A&E or in our newsmagazines, and we would have a whole Web site devoted to that. I think [the networks can] still lead, and creativity can be enhanced by having other opportunities.
The Times: As you look at the season that's about to begin, what's your appraisal of the shows that are going on, and isn't it that much more difficult for a new show to get any traction?
Moonves: I think the last year was really rather seminal in determining what was successful and what was not. There was a realization that the bar had changed--the numbers had really changed in what constituted a hit. Are the days over of getting a 40 share out of the box, like "ER" did? Probably, but that doesn't mean success can't be measured in different ways.
You're talking to all of us in August. This is spring training, when the Chicago Cubs think they're going to win the pennant. . . . Ask us the question in November, we may have a different answer.
Bloomberg: I think you can tell when you've had good development and you haven't, and I think you can look and say you've had a pretty strong year. We feel positive about our schedule, but until you get into the whole competitive situation, who knows?
* * *
The Times: Do you ever get a sense that there's just too much programming for people to absorb now?
Ohlmeyer: There's no question that there is. If people have 30 channels, they'll watch 10; if they have 75 channels, they'll watch 11; [and] if they have over 100, they'll watch nine. There's a law of diminishing returns there.
That's the game-changer that exists today. There is nothing that dictates that, 20 years from now, the companies that are on top are going to continue to be on top. What you have is either Darwinian survival of the fittest or the ultimate in capitalism. The consumer sits there and makes his choice.
What changes for us is the concept that existed 20 or even 10 years ago of "the audience." There is no "audience" anymore. There are 200 different segments of the audience, and the goal of broadcasters is to try and pull together as many different segments and aggregate them at one time with something that they collectively want to experience. That's what programming is about today: providing a collective experience.
Bloomberg: There's a new generation who watches TV differently. You don't just sit and watch Channel 4 throughout the night. My daughter is 16. She doesn't know what the WB is, but she's an avid "Dawson's Creek" viewer. She just knows it's Channel 5. She doesn't know that something exists called the WB. You watch programs.
Moonves: And Channel 53 is as accessible as Channel 4 or 2.
* * *
The Times: The networks have begun producing and owning more of their shows. How much is program ownership going to affect decisions in terms of what you put on as you go forward?
Moonves: We're all looking for other sources of revenue, be it merchandising the cassettes of "Merlin" or owning some more of your product. There's no question that every one of the networks is looking at those opportunities; however, I think I can speak for just about everybody at this table by saying I don't think a show will get on the air in 95% of those cases just because it's an owned show. The best show will make it on the schedule. If there is a jump ball, which is rare, the owned show will get the nod.
Two of the gentlemen at this table are with networks [ABC and Fox] owned by major studios that have major television production companies. It's dumb for them not to look at those places as a major supplier. So I think it's part of the ballgame.
Bloomberg: Still, some of our most successful series are from Fox as well. My job is still going to be to put on the most solid schedule, so we get the strongest ad revenue going in. Obviously, in a company such as ours, vertical integration is important, revenue streams are important, so we can own more products for syndication; but still, I have to put on a successful schedule.
Ohlmeyer: We would all take a hit from Attila the Hun. It doesn't matter who it comes from--as long as there continues to be a business in taking a hit from Attila the Hun.
Hill: Do you have his number?
Ohlmeyer: One of the things that gets [overlooked] is if a show is successful, it's [usually credited to] the brilliance of the creative people on the show. If a show is a failure, it's those dummies at the network.
Hill: The dummies at the network that didn't promote it and put it in the wrong time slot.
* * *
The Times: From what you've said, it sounds like you would argue that part of the problems the networks have are based on perception, not erosion.
Hill: Absolutely. You look at the top 10 programs on cable week in, week out, and it's wrestling. Now if that's your idea of great television programming, God bless you.
Ohlmeyer: There are real problems that we have to face . . . and we face them from [the position of] having the largest audience, an audience that's declining. But the television business has also done a dreadful job of getting its message out. It's almost like it's become "uncool" to write about anything good on television.
Moonves: Yes, erosion is a problem that we're all addressing, but perception is also a problem. Cable has done a better job of selling themselves than we have. Rarely do you see positive network stories about quality, about the number of viewers. Instead, the erosion stories seem to overwhelm us.
Hill: I don't recall any articles about the death of network television during the May sweeps and the final episode of "Seinfeld."
Ohlmeyer: Here's an example of what we face. If nobody's watching, the reason nobody's watching is because we're not doing good programming. But if we all put on good programs, the reason nobody's watching is because we're making the viewer choose between all these great programs.
* * *
The Times: How much of an impact are UPN and the WB having now?
Bloomberg: If you look at "Dawson's" and compare that to "My So-Called Life"--we unfortunately, sadly, took that show off [in 1995]--they do quite well with that rating, [and] we would not do as well with that number. It's a small number.
Moonves: We had a pilot when I got to CBS called "Moesha." Now, that is a show that couldn't have worked on CBS in a million years. It was way too young for us. Our African American audience at that time was way down. UPN wisely put it on the air, and I think it's the best show that they have, but they're still doing numbers that we couldn't live with, nor could anybody at this table.
Hill: If Stu had "Dawson's Creek," he'd be calling his marketing people saying, "I've got to get another few share points out of this." And yet, for the WB, it's hailed as a huge hit.
Bloomberg: Because we did get a strong, hard-core audience, I think there would be a much longer conversation or argument today about whether there is value in keeping [a show like "My So-Called Life"]. Ironically, with all the ballyhoo about "Dawson's," we have this little show, "Boy Meets World," whose teen numbers are stronger, but you never hear about it.
Ohlmeyer: If the criticism is we're not attracting as many people as we used to, that's a fairly logical criticism, because we have 196 more competitors. If the criticism is that we're doing lousy shows, then I would have to say "ER," "Friends," "Frasier," "Homicide," "Law & Order." Everyone at this table could name shows on his own network. When the history of television is written, the '90s will be kind of the Golden Age of quality programs.
Now, can we all do 22 hours [of prime-time programming a week] that are as distinctive as "ER," "Homicide," "Law & Order," "Friends," "Frasier," "Seinfeld"? No. That's just not realistic.
* * *
The Times: Is it liberating at all that the ratings expectations are not what they used to be? Does it free you to take a stab with a show that might reach a narrower audience?
Ohlmeyer: We do that now. "Homicide" has been on for five years and has never been a big hit, but it has a small, passionate audience. There needs to be a critical mass that you have to get over, and then it starts to be a decision. . . . I'm not sure anybody in the broadcast business can live for a long time, at least today, on a 5 or 6 share, no matter how passionate people are. The beauty of the business today for the creative community is, there is room for that show--there are many places where you can get your idea on, and have it on for a long time.
Moonves: That's always the toughest call--to know when to stay there, when it will grow. ABC gave "Nothing Sacred" every chance they could give it, and they reached a point where they said, "You know what? It's not growing." It was the same thing a year earlier on "EZ Streets" with us.
Bloomberg: It's that critical mass Don's talking about. You can try to keep that one show on, but at a certain point, you can't look at that hour in a vacuum. It suddenly affects your whole night.
* * *
The Times: Are there shows that, as you look back, you regret cutting loose?
Bloomberg: "My So-Called Life." We would still be having the same argument, [because] it only got teenage girls. Maybe if we had kept it on we could have grown the audience, as [Fox did] with "Party of Five". . . . In retrospect, I wish that we had had the patience to let it grow.
Moonves: There's a lot of nights I stay awake and go through 12 different shows that I've done, on and off, and think "woulda shoulda coulda," which is one of the terrible parts of this job. That's the toughest call you have to make. There's nothing I want to be specific about, because I'll hear from seven producers who'll say, "Why didn't you include me in that list?"
* * *

Our Panel

Stu Bloomberg
Age: 49
Hometown: Youngstown, Ohio
Started at ABC: January 1978
Began current job: June 1997
Career history: Considered one of the most adept program developers in TV; his credits include working on such diverse fare as "Full House," "Roseanne" and "NYPD Blue"
Career footnote: Began as a sketch comedy writer before becoming a TV exec. Was fired off "Cos"--a short-lived 1976 ABC variety show featuring Bill Cosby--by producer Alan Thicke
* * *
David Hill
Age: 52
Hometown: Newcastle, Australia
Started at Fox: December 1993
Began current job: July 1996
Career history: Worked for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. since 1988, overseeing Sky Sports in the U.K., preceded by 11 years in sports at Australia's Nine Network
Career footnote: Revolutionized U.K. soccer coverage by putting tiny cameras in the nets, before bringing innovations such as computerized glowing hockey pucks and the "catcher-cam" to Fox Sports here
* * *
Leslie Moonves
Age: 48
Hometown: Valley Stream, N.Y.
Started at CBS: July 1995
Began current job: April 1998
Career history: Made his present job that much tougher by overseeing development of the NBC hits "ER" and "Friends" while heading Warner Bros. Television
Career footnote: Has signed big checks to Bill Cosby and Ted Danson but didn't cash many starting out as an actor, though he did play a bad guy on "The Six Million Dollar Man"
* * *
Don Ohlmeyer
Age: 53
Hometown: New Orleans
Started at NBC: February 1993
Began current job: Same
Career history: Started producing sports after graduating from Notre Dame, working on ABC's "Monday Night Football" and three Olympics. As a producer, helped create the MTV Awards show and golf's Skins Game
Career footnote: After working with Howard Cosell at ABC, came up with idea at NBC for the first football game broadcast without announcers

Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times.

“I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"