Too good for prime time audiences?

by Cal Thomas

The end of another television season has brought the usual cancellation notices to  programs that didn't measure up in some eyes and the announcement of new programs for the fall season that will measure up in fewer eyes.

Before last  season's summer reruns fade from view, special recognition should be paid to one canceled show that was a model for what many politicians and the  public say they want but decreasingly get. That show was "Promised Land."

The  Thursday-night CBS program was about an out-of-work veteran (played by  Gerald McRaney) who, along with his intact heterosexual family (a species  that virtually disappears this fall on the networks), conducted a nomadic exploration of America. Not only did they help people with problems along the way, the family discovered the greater blessings that come from giving instead of receiving. This past season the family settled in Denver where the show's executive producer Martha Williamson - the best writer working  in television today - had them sorting out racial tensions in an  integrated neighborhood. The show not only entertained, it instructed in  ways that completely elude the race commission.

Teen angst (portrayed by two very credible young actors, Austin O' Brien and Sarah  Schaub) was effectively dealt with in a family environment presided over  by a grandmother, Celeste Holm, Mr. McRaney and his screen wife, Wendy  Phillips. The plots were compelling and contemporary. While the show scored higher in the ratings than other programs that were renewed, it  didn't rate with the demographics we're told advertisers prefer - the 18-  to 34-year-olds, with the emphasis on the teen wing of that age spread.

CBS President  Les Moonves recently attended a small White House gathering of  entertainment executives. Concern was expressed by the Clinton administration, in light of recent high school shootings, about the rising  levels of violence on television and in films. "Promised Land" would seem to be an ideal antidote to such cultural poison. But within days of the White House meeting, Mr. Moonves pulled the plug on the show.

What can we  look forward to this fall? Not much. If you're over 35, the networks don't  care if you watch or not. That's because advertisers stupidly want younger  viewers when it's the adults they are offending who have the most to spend. The highly rated "Touched by an Angel" on CBS (also produced by  Miss Williamson) gets 3 times the audience of the overtly sexual "Dawson's  Creek" on the WB Channel, but "Dawson' s Creek" can charge more for a commercial spot because advertisers want to reach the teen audience.

This fall, with  a few exceptions, it's programs for the zit-and-training bra set. Writing  in the New York Times, Bernard Weinraub notes "the degree of cynicism and  self-satisfaction among television executives and writer-producers who  proudly showed off their newest sitcoms and seemed in denial over just how terrible they were." Just how out of touch these TV moguls are was apparent in the comments made by a WB network executive, who Mr. Weinraub  heard tell an audience of advertisers and local affiliate executives that  adults should watch WB to learn how to deal with their children.

The networks know their audience is dwindling, but they don't blame themselves. They fault the Internet and other entertainment sources. If the networks seek only teens, they will have no adult audience to return to once fickle adolescents move on to other things, like adulthood. The next generation could fail to develop the habit of watching TV because their parents have realized how poisonous it has become and might turn it off in favor of  reading or (gasp!) family conversation.

The problem  with "Promised Land" was that it was too good for prime time. It made you think about things that matter - family, doing good deeds, racial  reconciliation. We say we need more of this, but we get less. Does this  make sense? Only if you're a network executive.

Copyright 1999, The Washington Times, 6/6/99, p. B1.
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