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The TV Industry's Blind Spots

The major entertainment television networks are all in free falls. Audiences are leaving by the tens of millions and at this rate we'll see one or more web crash and burn. What will save ABC, CBS, and NBC from financial ruin? Try common sense.

The story actually begins in early 1995, when CBS's "Touched By an Angel," then in its first season, was on the verge of cancellation. Concerned viewers rallied behind it, and now "Angel" is a monster hit that has triggered other pro-family, pro-religion efforts - one of which is "7th Heaven," now the most popular show on the WB network.

The producer of "7th Heaven," Aaron Spelling, says the show means more to him than any of his dozens of previous series. TV Guide recently named it "The Best Show You're Not Watching," given the limited exposure the still-relatively-new WB enjoys. But so popular is "7th Heaven" that its February 8 episode earned the highest rating in the four-year history of that network.

Contrast the ascending "7th Heaven" with Fox's descending "Melrose Place," also produced by Spelling, which shuts down this spring after seven sex-soaked seasons. A statement from Fox declared that "Melrose" "will go down in television history as a pop culture icon for the '90s," which is another way of saying it's one of the raunchiest shows in broadcast network history. In the end, though, backstabbing and bedhopping couldn't compete with home and hearth. The New York Times' Bill Carter noted that of all the shows airing opposite "Melrose" at 8 p.m. Mondays, none hurt it more in terms of ratings than - you guessed it - "7th Heaven." So for Spelling, maybe it's a wash; for the family audience, it's a terrific victory.

"7th Heaven" will be back in the fall, and "Melrose Place" will not. Between those extremes is CBS's "Promised Land," whose fate is much less certain. This excellent family drama did well in the 8 p.m. Thursday time slot until it was pulled two months ago in favor of the new police series "Turks." The good news is that "Promised Land" returns March 25; the bad news is that many question CBS's desire to see this show survive.

Why won't the networks support successful family programs like "Promised Land" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman"? There are three reasons. One is Hollywood's palpable unease with family programming. This industry is far more comfortable with the sleaze of "Melrose Place," the raunch of "The Drew Carey Show," and the violence of "Millennium." Present it with a "Christy" or a "Touched By an Angel" and you're in a real way threatening their culture.

Second, those who could write and produce family programming are badly underrepresented in an overwhelmingly secular, socially liberal industry. Martha Williamson, a born-again Christian, masterminded "Touched By an Angel" and "Promised Land," but others with the same talent and the same beliefs have not had the same opportunity. This is where the new Pax TV, with its all-family-friendly lineup, will attract a new generation of Williamsons.

The third and most important factor is, to put it mildly, bizarre: The sponsors won't pay for quality programming. Over the past thirty years a veritable mythology has become truth in this industry: The only real consumers in America are aged 18 to 49. If you are 50 or older, you are no longer a viable consumer, and what you care to watch on television is of no concern to advertisers.

"Dr. Quinn" is a case study. When CBS pulled it a little over a year ago in favor of "The Magnificent Seven," it was top-rated in its time slot. In the 1997-'98 Nielsens, it finished tied for 51st out of 156 shows - not dazzling, but respectable. Yet toward the end of its run, advertisers could buy a 30-second spot on the program for about $40,000, the lowest figure of any prime time series. Why? Because "Dr. Quinn" viewers were too old and too rural. "Melrose Place" finished 80th, well behind "Dr. Quinn," yet as this season began a 30-second spot on "Melrose," with its younger, more urban/suburban audience, was going for about $165,000.

The conventional thinking is that the 50-plus audience doesn't buy cars, doesn't shop for food, doesn't need clothing, doesn't require soap. It's this segment of the public that should be most upset with the television industry - and with the sponsors in particular - that is telling it to drop dead.