Backtalk: Broadcast Blues

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It was another one of those weeks when the broadcastnetworks took their collective lumps via prominently placed articles in the nationalmedia.

And all for good reason: From all accounts, thenetworks' new primetime fall-season offerings are about as inspiring as sitting downand facing warmed-over tuna-noodle casserole each evening.

NBC -- just last year the leader of the pack, by a longshot -- took it the hardest on the chin. The proud peacock reported a 20 percent loss ofaudience, mostly because this was its first season without Seinfeld.

That's only part of the bad news for NBC, as it alsolost out on the bidding for National Football League games and, as a result, it has lost ahost of young male viewers.

The losses of both the games and Seinfeld took theirtoll on NBC's male audience (18-to-34), as the network lost 31 percent of that keydemographic.

Now, it's up to a very familiar name incable-programming circles to fix that mess. Scott Sassa -- who, for years, headed upentertainment for Turner Broadcasting System Inc. -- is being phased in to head up all ofNBC's entertainment operations.

Sassa, like his counterparts at the other networks, has hiswork cut out for him, as cable and the Internet continue to siphon off viewers frombroadcast.

But it's not just cable and the Internet that areplaguing the broadcast networks: They need look no further than beyond their own ingrainedhabits of the past decade.

For starters, all of the broadcast networks continue toappeal to the lowest common denominator. They remain the repositories for the most insipidsitcoms, which Hollywood is spitting out in a New York minute to feed the schedules ofthese voracious and fickle beasts.

The real problem is so fundamental and fixable: Why not trya little patience? With knee-jerk predictability, all of the networks have made a habit ofyanking shows prematurely, never giving them time to catch on or to build a habit withviewers.

Even when new shows are spared the ax, they are inevitablymoved around the primetime lineup so frequently that there's no way for a viewer tofind them.

But maybe -- just maybe -- all of that is changing. TheWall Street Journal reported last week that ABC would be renewing most of itsprimetime schedule, even though none of the new series showed signs of being winners.

That is smart business, especially given the choices.ABC's new series, Sports Night, may actually have legs, even though it ranked44th so far this season.

In truth, ABC doesn't have many options. Unlike NBC,which has some hits in its stable -- ER, Friends and Frasier -- ABCcannot really afford to pull the plug on its losers early on.

After all, ABC doesn't have much going for it inprimetime beyond Home Improvement and Spin City, which, by today'slowered ratings standards, are hits.

Dare I suggest that maybe there's a lesson that thebroadcast networks can learn from their cable brethren?

Cable has built loyal audiences because, by necessity, itdelivers what it says it will deliver.

When you tune in to Nick at Nite, you pretty much know whatyou're going to find. The same holds true for all cable networks, whether it'sCNN or Home & Garden Television, because their successes have been built on havingidentities that viewers quickly grasp, thus developing and nurturing viewing habits andloyalty.

Take last Tuesday evening, election night. Again, thebroadcast networks abdicated the night to cable, only turning to the local races duringthe late evening news.

That was another mistake, because the most mind-blowingthing on all of television that night was to watch -- only on cable -- the exit polls andearly returns for the gubernatorial race in Minnesota, where the independent candidate --former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura -- wasted his two established-party opponents.

Now that's television.

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