How networks perish -

How networks perish


A friend told me she’d been marathoning a great TV series (never mind the name) recently and asked me if I’d been watching anything on DVD recently. I replied that I had watched nearly all of Laverne & Shirley, season 5. Well, if I’m going to make a confession like that, I might as well get a blog post out of it. The reason I bought this DVD is because I learned from the above review that CBS/Paramount has reversed its policy on chopping TV shows to pieces: while some generic music floats in on the jukeboxes, the snippets of copyrighted songs are left in, and the episodes are all at their original 25-minute lengths. Now if only CBS/Paramount had adopted this policy back when they were hacking The Odd Couple and Taxi and many other, better shows to death, but it is sort of nice that now that the DVD boom is over, the occasional season releases we do get are done with a bit more care.

The idea of Laverne & Shirley has always been more appealing to me than the execution. If you describe the show, it sounds wonderful: a slapstick comedy in the tradition of Lucy, the only post-Lucy show to allow women to be the knockabout, fearless physical comedians. Add in the two wackiest wacky neighbours in sitcom history, and what could be bad? Well, the scripts. Except maybe for the first season, they were never as good as they could have been, and everyone involved knew it. There are stories about how the writers would just throw story logic to the wind and figure out how to get the girls into a wacky physical situation, and this shows in the episodes. (There are also stories, of course, about how the actors would all drive the writers crazy. There was a huge amount of writer turnover, and Lander and McKean are said to have set at least one script on fire, though that’s a story that’s told about a lot of actors on a lot of shows, and could be apocryphal.) The physical comedy bits are sometimes actually funnier when they’re excerpted (or when we remember them, once we’ve forgotten what they were about), because the setups are so contrived. When the girls are wrapped up like mummies and trying to knock over a cabinet full of food, the physical schtick is funny but not as funny as it would be if the situation made any sense. It’s one of the things the original I Love Lucy had, and that Fawlty Towers had, and that Three’s Company had in its good moments: physical comedy that arises from a situation that is at least somewhat believable.

Anyway, the historically interesting point about this season is that it was the centrepiece of a disastrous season for ABC, where the network essentially gave back much of what it had gained during the Fred Silverman era. Silverman, the most famous TV executive of the era, came to ABC in 1975 after turning CBS around in the ’70s, and he did the same for ABC with a combination of shows with kid appeal, shows with sex appeal, and a slight sprinkling of quality TV (Roots, Barney Miller, Taxi). Silverman left to join NBC (where he didn’t pull off the same feat but did manage to greenlight Hill Street Blues) in 1978, and in the 1979-80 season, ABC made a number of aggressive scheduling moves. The biggest move was taking Laverne & Shirley out of the slot following Happy Days, where it had actually out-rated its lead-in, and moving it to Thursday at 8 to anchor the night. This is why the season begins with a special (and kind of idiotic) crossover event with Happy Days, designed entirely to make viewers follow the show to Thursdays. Only they didn’t. Up against what should have been easy competition – the aging The Waltons and the bubble show Buck Rogers in the 20th Century – the show sank like a stone in the ratings and eventually had to be moved to Mondays and then back to Tuesdays, ending the season out of the top 30 after several years as #1. The following year it underwent a huge, absurd retool, moving the whole cast to California, just to keep viewer interest alive in a show that seemed all-conquering only a couple of years before. It seems to have been an odd case of a show that was incredibly popular as a lead-out but simply was not strong enough to anchor a night; the biggest time-slot hit of all time.

Though it did come up with one new hit, Benson, ABC seemed to be over-confident in some of its other shows, including Mork & Mindy, which underwent an ill-advised retool and did poorly in its new Sunday night timeslot. Fantasy Island also got moved to make room for a show from the same producers (Hart to Hart), and it never quite caught on as the anchor of an evening, either. The midseason comedies of 1978-9, The Ropers and Angie, turned out less strong when they had a full season. The Associates, the one new high-quality comedy of the season, was given a terrible timeslot (after the retooled Mork) and died. And some other shows just passed their prime really suddenly: 1979-80 was the season of Shelley Hack on Charlie’s Angels, and that was the end of that franchise. To some extent, it seems like an illustration of how a #1 network can be weaker than it seems. Silverman had left his successor, Tony Thomopoulos, with some genuine smash hits, but also some shows that needed careful handling if they were not to lose their audience. Every successful network has a combination of the two: some shows can be a hit no matter what the network does to them, and others can only be a hit in certain controlled circumstances. What ABC found out in 1979-80 was that a lot of its shows weren’t as strong as they looked.

By the end of the season, CBS (powered by Dallas) had taken back the #1 network spot, and ABC would struggle for a long time – a struggle that was bad for them but good for the viewers, since their desperation eventually forced them to greenlight all kinds of experimental drama series in the late ’80s. Thomopolous apparently felt that the principle of aggressive scheduling was still a good one, and continued the policy in 1980-1, moving two of ABC’s best comedies, Taxi and Soap, to new time slots. Both were basically killed by these moves.

Addendum # 1: one thing I learned from reading articles on that season: one of the midseason comedies ABC introduced in 1980 was called “When the Whistle Blows.” The article did not reveal whether anyone involved with the show was having a laugh.

Addendum # 2: Another thing I found in an article from midseason 1980: a writer for the Los Angeles Times, Peter Boyer, writing about how the additional uses of TV (thanks to cable, you could now watch more on TV than just a few basic channels), writing that the next step in TV will be Teletext, which had been around in Europe for a while but was only starting to be rolled out in North America.

“Teletext is a service that allows viewers to order printed information on the home TV. Say you’re watching ‘That’s Incredible’ and you want to know the mortality rate of TV stuntmen. Teletext, eventually, could enable you to find the answer… A decoder box enables the viewer to block out, wholly or partially, the normal picture and order teletext data – weather reports, news headlines, community calendars, whatever happens to be programmed… Teletext holds obvious appeal to a commercial network. CBS might be able to have a classified ads ‘page’ or supplement its commercials with a list showing where advertised products can be purchased.”

Despite the breathless plug in the article, Teletext never went anywhere in North America. But I find the description interesting because the article basically predicts that TV networks will use interactive information technology in innovative ways – and of course they never really did, even after the internet became popular. In theory, there might have been things networks could have done to take advantage of the information/interactivity revolution that everyone could see coming in 1980, but for the most part they didn’t.

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