Television Today and Tomorrow: It Won't Be What You Think

by David C. Fuchs, Gene F. Jankowski; Oxford University Press, 1996

There is a factor known as program fatigue, a wearing down of effectiveness that tends to set in after a certain number of years. Sometimes introducing new cast members or new faces on the production team can offset it. The trick lies in judging exactly when it has become critical, when a program has gone past a point of no return. By 1982, Lou Grant had been on the schedule for three years--a long span by television standards--and was beginning to show signs of fatigue. While it still had a loyal core following, the less frequent viewers were abandoning it, and the margin of success depended on their presence. Of course, a cancellation decision implies a replacement decision. The question was whether there was a replacement that would have both the quality and durability that Lou Grant had. Unfortunately, coincidental with the decision making process regarding Lou Grant, Ed Asner made some controversial political remarks as a private citizen. The backlash created a minor story in the press. CBS was accused of bending to pressure in deciding on the cancellation. That this was not the case is demonstrated by the fact that the replacement program was Cagney and Lacey, also a serious drama that touched on social issues, and also featuring outstanding performing talent, in this case two actresses cast as New York City police officers--leadership roles usually associated with men.

The program stayed on the air for seven years, and some of the show's performers won numerous awards.

Both Sunday Morning and Cagney and Lacey demonstrate how improving the service in a time period leads to improved revenues. The cynical phrase in the industry is that the networks are in business "to sell eyeballs to advertisers." What the phrase overlooks is that those eyeballs, the viewers, have to be there to begin with. A network must make its decisions based on viewers' interests before anything else. Advertising values are derived from the viewers' interests, not the other way around.

To add some perspective to the Lou Grant story, it should be noted that it is rare for any network entertainment program to last more than four years. The creative skills required to produce a weekly program that endures are in very short supply. This is because television reverses the traditional relationship between audience and content. In both the legitimate theater and the movies, the product stays the same, and the audience changes. In television just the opposite occurs. The audience is always there, so the product must change. It is hard to find materials that are able to stand up under the repeated exposure television demands, where familiarity and freshness have to be combined. To last four years is outstanding; to last eight is exceptional; to last more than ten is phenomenal. In the history of television only fifty-six programs have ever done so.

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