We are entering the 1997-1998 TV season, the 50th anniversary of network TV. It seems like we have never been without it, but a half-century ago network television began, with the premieres of programming still with us. "Gillette Cavalcade of Sports" has spawned hundred of imitators. So has "Meet the Press."
At the close of that pioneering 1947-1948 season NBC and CBS televised the Democratic and Republican conventions, with Douglas Edwards and John Cameron Swayze anchoring. But compared to 50 years ago, the biggest difference today's viewers would notice would be the dearth of regular newscasts in those early days. In 1947, ABC, CBS, and NBC offered just 15 minutes per evening; today's around the clock news would seem a miracle to viewers in that era.
Back then, NBC, CBS and ABC contracted with ad agencies to produce most prime time television programs and innovated the forms of television we take for granted today. Their only rival was DuMont network, which, within a decade, was out of business.
For 30 years the world lamented the lack of a fourth network. In 1986 Rupert Murdoch came forward with one. The emergence of Fox surely ranks as one of the greatest success stories in TV history.
Murdoch took the business back to basics and had his Hollywood studio – Twentieth Century Fox –
directly create shows. Fox's Sunday night line-up presents television entertainment as good as it gets – with the funny (yet dark) "Simpsons," and the darker (but often funnier) "X-Files."
As this 50th season begins Fox has reached a maturity best symbolized by an unchanged prime time schedule. By comparison, top dog NBC will introduce eight new shows, while ABC has added a dozen new entrants and CBS has reconfigured its prime time offerings every weekday night.
But behind all the hype surrounding these new shows is the biggest unreported TV story of the new season: More and more prime time fare is being produced in-house. TV is going back to its roots.
Network-generated production is back, and so in this crucial respect the face of television does not look so different from its pioneering days.
In particular CBS network brass are smart enough to stick with proven hits, produced in-house, like "60 Minutes" and "Touched by an Angel."
Indeed, despite a slew of premature obituaries during a ratings slump a few years ago, "60 Minutes" remains the cornerstone of the CBS schedule. The trailblazing TV newsmagazine has finished more often in TV's Top 10 than any Hollywood-made entertainment series. This past season marked a record-setting twentieth Top 10 finish in a row for "60 Minutes." Even the legendary Lucille Ball only cracked the Top 10 for 10 consecutive seasons.
But CBS cannot simply rely on a single show. This season Bryant Gumbel will try to create another top-rated newsmagazine and help the network reclaim Wednesday nights. More critical will be the ratings of February's Winter Olympics on CBS.
ABC's future looks less bright. Many, including me, thought that by this time, more than two years after Disney paid some $19 billion for ABC, the alphabet network would be riding high. Instead it has been all downhill, and the drag of ABC's poor ratings makes Disney CEO Michael Eisner's much promised corporate synergy a promise unfulfilled.
Last year Eisner hand-picked Hollywood super agent Michael Ovitz as his aide-de-camp, and both declared ABC's declining ratings merely "some hiccups along the way." Since then, the hiccups have turned into serious indigestion as ABC's prime time numbers dropped 13 percent last season, leaving the network in an embarrassing third place. (Ovitz has since left the network.)
Look for big changes in ABC this fall as Eisner and company have replaced every 8:00 p.m. show. Disney's shakeup includes an increased reliance on its Burbank-based parent with the return of a revamped "Wonderful World of Disney," hosted by Eisner himself. Still ABC's most successful show, "20/20," while network-produced, is not from Burbank. Disney knows how to clone: "20/20" will be seen in a second edition on Thursdays this fall.
The ratings success of General Electric's NBC will continue to be fueled by as potent a single night prime time line-up as TV's big time advertisers have ever seen (and paid record prices for). A telltale sign to watch will be the ratings success of "Veronica's Closet." Allotted the sweetheart time slot after "Seinfeld," and before "E.R.," "Veronica's Closet," starring TV veteran Kirstie Alley as the owner of a lingerie shop who feuds with a philandering husband, is supposed to become the next "Frasier." The 50th TV season will be NBC's to lose.