Fred Silverman has devoured the goose that laid the golden egg. The man who led the way in transforming American television from a social force into a social disease is about to pay the price. And so are the other men and women who have conspired with Silverman and the rest of the network moguls to force-feed more than 200,000,000 Americans a daily diet of generally wretched entertainment on that three-headed monster--CBS, ABC and NBC.
Twenty-five years ago, network radio lost much of its audience and all of its thunder to a new commodity called television. Today commercial network TV is being threatened by similar new technology [see Tuning In on the New TV Technology, page 218]. Already, cable and pay TV--featuring unedited movies, sports and music attractions--are siphoning off viewers in hundreds of cities and towns across the country. Twenty percent of the nation's TV homes are already hooked up to cable; many of them also receive pay-cable; still others receive some sort of noncable pay-TV service.
Even more frightening to the network bigwigs is the sudden emergence of the home-video-tape industry, now estimated to be represented in 1,000,000 homes and growing rapidly. Consumers are discovering that video-tape recorders are a cinch to operate--and that they offer worlds of custom-tailored variety. Suddenly, those people can go out and buy cassettes of Hollywood movies and Vegas night-club performances. They can also tape some of their favorite TV programs and watch them over and over--when it's convenient for them to watch, not when it's convenient for the network to televise--thus breaking the network domination in their households.
Many experts believe that between now and 1985, this combination of cable, pay and home video tape will drastically slash the amount of viewing Americans devote to the three big networks.
"The networks," says Eric Sevareid, the retired news commentator, "have reached the peak of their dominance."
Another top broadcast newsman, ABC News senior vice-president Richard Wald, seconds that notion: "Television is a child of technology," he says, "and the technology is changing." Wald theorizes that by the mid-Eighties--scarcely five years from now--the network program schedules could very well be comprised of mostly news and sports.
Even producer Garry Marshall, the creator of such mind candy as Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy, thinks there could be a viewer revolution coming. "I really believe that a lot of people are gonna start buying these cassettes," he says.
Until very recently, such talk was labeled visionary and was largely poohpoohed by both the public and the network bosses. It simply was hard for anyone to imagine commercial television undergoing any sort of revolution, particularly considering the public's continued heavy TV viewing.
But in the past few years, network TV has suffered a sort of nervous breakdown. The networks have insulted a large portion of their public by ferociously adhering to lowest-common-denominator programing. And then they've proceeded to confuse what public was left by reducing the actual programs to secondary status below the art of packaging, marketing and scheduling. The networks have concentrated so much on the logistics of outmaneuvering the competition that they've forgotten the logic of appealing to the viewers. To paraphrase Howard Beale, the insane but perceptive anchor man in the movie Network, the people are mad as hell--and they're not gonna take it anymore.
Indeed, in the final analysis, that's the real reason behind the coming viewer revolution. The people hate television--even though most of them are irresistibly attracted to it. As inarticulate as this rage may be, it's significant for what it stands for: The people are striking back at the networks that have trampled them and treated them like slobs for so long. And now that various technological advances are beginning to give viewers some respectable alternatives to the networks, this "revenge factor" has become a genuine threat to the biggest on New York's Sixth Avenue.
Think about it. Television has run roughshod over the lives of so many normal, everyday people for so many years that the current backlash should surprise nobody. This viewer disaffection already has reared its head in that bible of broadcasting--the Nielsen audience ratings. Since 1977, viewing levels have dropped for the first time in history--anywhere from two to eight percent, depending on the hour of the day and the season of the year. It's significant that the fall-off is even steeper for the audience of the three major networks. This means not only that people are watching less TV but that even when they do tune in, they're devoting a hefty chunk of time to independent, nonnetwork stations, to public, noncommercial TV, to cable and pay TV and to video cassettes on their home video-tape machines.
And although the networks would like us to believe that the viewing decline stopped 18 months ago, the fact is that the networks suffered a further Nielsen-rating dip last season--of two percent in prime time--on top of the previous viewing skid. Moreover, a nationwide Washington Post survey reveals that 53 percent of people 18 and older are watching less TV than they were five years ago, while only 32 percent are watching more. The networks may be rolling in dough, but those glittering profits could become endangered species if nationwide viewer anger keeps building.
So just where does Fred Silverman fit into this picture? If this season--or the next or the next--is truly network TV's last hurrah, why should he be singled out as the guy who sent his industry down the tubes? Can't TV's generally disgusting nature be attributed to a team effort?
Well, not exactly. If one man can be charged with destroying television, that man is Freddie Silverman. Now president and chief executive officer of the National Broadcasting Company, Silverman is commonly known as The Man with the Golden Gut, the fellow who can parlay a simple hunch and some computerized research into enormous success in both audience ratings and advertising revenue.
Unlike most of the status-conscious zombies who work for and against him, Silverman, 42, is a genuine working-class hero. Short, pudgy and constantly rumpled, he comes across far more like one of his cherished lowbrow viewers than like the brainiest and most powerful man in television. No golf, tennis or sailing for Silverman. No cocktail parties with foreign dignitaries. In all of network TV, there's probably nobody who toils as long or as hard. Those who know him say he's a considerate boss, a kindhearted sort who gels along with cleaning women and top lieutenants alike. Not only that; Silverman actually loves TV. He watches it more than any other broadcast captain would dare admit, and he shamelessly confesses having been moved to tears by certain episodes of Laverne & Shirley and Soap. History has yet to record whether or not he breaks down and blubbers over Hello, Larry. but there's no doubt that this rough-cut, homely, shambling boss of America's oldest network definitely is a flesh-and-blood human being.
And yet this uniquely American success story has let his fellow citizens down by rendering television more mundane, more infantile and less thoughtful than anyone believed possible. A man who can draw top ratings for a program in which the funniest line is "Up your nose with a rubber hose!" has to be a wizard at capturing the imagination of the mass public. But with success comes responsibility, and the mass media--especially TV--have a responsibility to enlighten as well as entertain, to illuminate as well as ingratiate. Silverman apparently doesn't understand that.
"If we were programing for England," he says, "I dare say we'd have more felicitous-speaking characters and more subtle dialog. But we're programing for Des Moines, Boise and Newark--not Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire. We're a success, and there's nothing wrong with that. So we're not going to be embarrassed by it, or ashamed of it, either. And we're certainly not going to apologize for what we're presenting to the American public."
Believe it or not, it all started with (continued on page 216) Destroyed Television (continued form page 156) Bomba, the Jungle Boy. Don't laugh. In 1962, several years out of Ohio State University, Silverman was working for WGN-TV, the fat-cat independent station in Chicago. Then 24, he was the third- or fourth-string program executive. Maybe because this chubby, aggressive Jewish kid was a pain in the ass to his bland, WASPish WGN superiors, he was handed the dregs of the station's movie library and told to develop some ideas for their use. His bosses probably figured that would keep Freddie occupied and out of their hair, but Silverman thumbed through the movie catalog and found a dog-eared package of Bomba, the Jungle Boy flicks. Suddenly, the idea bulb went on in his head.
He slapped a flashy opening onto the jungle films and got the station to schedule them in weekly prime time under the umbrella title Zim Bomba. Chicago viewers took to Zim Bomba like flies to foul matter. On Tuesday nights, it often beat two first-run network programs in the audience ratings. Young Freddie had tapped a public desire for camp material long before it became fashionable.
It was this astonishing ability to squeeze silk-purse rating out of sow'sear programing that brought him to the attention of the networks in New York. Within a few months, Silverman was out on Chicago and into CBS, where he soon invaded the Saturday-morning children's block with loud, violent cartoons featuring jet-age superheroes. Later he became chief of the CBS weekday soap operas his success into the vice-presidency of all CBS entertainment shows.
But it wasn't until 1975 that the Silverman Era of network TV was officially born. That was the year he bailed out of CBS and into ABC, as chief programer with the right to do whatever he pleased with a network's program schedule, unfettered by corporate captians who occasionally worried about things like prestige and image.
That autumn, Silverman took a long, hard look at our country and made a fateful discovery: He recognized that millions of lazy, incompetent parents would gladly surrender the TV to their kids all night--that an increasing number of people seemed to be abdicating any sense of parental responsibility for the programs that seeped into their living rooms.
Being a good businessman, Silverman did what came naturally: He pandered. Under him, TV's reputation as "the electronic baby sitter" no longer was just a catch phrase. In three short years as ABC program chief, he crated a subculture of boorish heroes and fantasy figures who became the favorites of youngsters everywhere. His number-one programing tenet was the notion that ingnorance is amusing. Consequently, his brain children usually ran the intellectual gamut form A to B--form the braless wonders on Charlie's Angels ti the classroom norons on Welcome Back, Kotter.
Tits 'n' zits. The combo paid off handsomely, especially because the nation's parents nodded off and let their kids control the TV dial all night. ABC quickly became "the sweathog network," the most exploitive outfit ever to operate in what probably is America's most exploitive industry. More importantly, ABC leapfrogged form third place to the top of the Nielsen prime-time heap.
Even a partial laundry list of the creations that Silverman presided over at ABC is a tribute to the P.T. Barnum philosophy about the birth rate of suckers. Consider: Three's Company, Charlie's Angels, Happy Days, laverne & Shirley, Soap, Starsky & Hutch, Vega$, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Ropers, What's Happening, Donny and Marie, Carter Country, Operation Petticoat, The Love Boat, fantasy Island, Hardy Boys Mysteries and Battlestar Galactica, among others.
Because of Silverman's astounding Nielsen success in selling this shallow, mundane fare to the public, the competition got into the act. CBS and NBC, frantic to make up lost ground, carbon-copied many of his inventions. And TV sank even lower.
CBS program chief Bud Grant came up with a contemporary rip-off of Happy Days called Busting Loose. In response to Silverman's cheesecake success, Grant gave us Wonder Woman, The American Girls and Flying High. At NBC, program boss Marvin Antonowsky bowdlerized Fay, a sophisticated comedy, into another piece of yuk-yuk sausage. He then canceled the series after less than a month. Lee Grant, the star of the show, soon popped up on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and verbally excoriated Antonowsky in front of a nationwide viewing audience. She also gave him the finger and christened him The Mad Programer, a nickname that has stuck.
Shortly after the Fay blowup, Antonowsky resigned. His replacement, Paul Klein, also joined in the follow-Freddie game. Klein switched The Black Sheep Squadron from a World War Two saga to a shallow tits-'n'-ass extravaganza by introducing a quartet of large-breasted Marine nurses known as Pappy's Lambs. He put them directly opposite Charlie's Angels on Wednesday night. Declared Klein: "If ABC is doing kiddie porn, NBC will give the audience adult porn." A few months later, Klein premiered a show called Rollergirls, which featured a whole team of amazons on roller skates. And Klein's NBC movies and miniseries weren't much classier, dominated as they were by such sex sleaze as 79 Park Avenue and Aspen.
Some people, including the cave dwellers who run the national P.T.A., refer to these programs as "sex on TV." But that's a tragic misuse of the language. In fact, complains Nick Johnson, media reformer and onetime maverick voice of the Federal Communications Commission, these shows are "cheap, tawdry, superficial and stereotyped, and bear no resemblance to real life."
The main ingredient of the cheesecake shows is a juvenile fascination with big tits, shapely asses, corny innuendo and such physical functions as going to the bathroom. On Three's Company, for instance, huge guffaws invariably greet the mere mention of a toilet. Despite attempts by network execs to call these programs "mature and adult," they are actually less sophisticated and often more childish than the average Saturday-morning cartoon.
Network TV's skin parade has nothing to do with "permissiveness." Indeed, the tube isn't nearly permissive enough. A truly permissive and enlightened medium wouldn't shy away from sex as a serious topic for dramatic and comedy shows. Sex is vitally important to a wide range of our society--from teens through the elderly. Yet television almost never treats sex openly, intelligently or sensitively. It doesn't enrich our sexual knowledge. It doesn't blast away sexual misconceptions. It fails miserably to illuminate an area that affects a big portion of our everyday lives.
Instead, TV tiptoes around sex. It makes leering, self-conscious wisecracks about it. The result may attract plenty of panting youngsters, but it's pissing off discerning adults. "Television ought to give us profound and sensitive stories about extramarital sex, abortion, teenage pregnancy, vasectomy and the emotional differences between men and women," says Johnson. "But the cheap, sensationalized stuff they're now doing is a disgrace--and it could result in an opposite reaction against any sort of responsible depiction of sex."
Even in the midst of the whirlwind Nielsen success he was enjoying at ABC, Silverman wasn't satisfied. One of his new programs, the genteel, slightly sophisticated Tony Randall Show, was doing nicely in the ratings, but not as well as Happy Days or Laverne & Shirley. Silverman figured the program's quietude and gentility were at the root of its "lagging" numbers. "So," recalls Randall producer/director Tom Patchett, "Silverman told us to add a Fonzietype character to the show. He said it would provide a lifestyle to conflict with that of Randall's strait-laced judge character." Patchett and his partner, Jay Tarses, refused to inject any greasy kid stuff into the show. In response, Silverman canceled it.
CBS stepped in and rescued Randall, but the philosophical signals from that network soon became more egregious than those of Silverman. "A CBS executive told my head writer that he ought to put more tits and ass into the show," Randall says. "I swear to you it's true. The suggestion was inept, tasteless, venal and stupid. I'm bitter and resentful and I won't do any more TV shows. The networks have determined that children control the TV set and the rest of the family simply watches what the kids choose. So they turn their programs into pap, in order to appeal to these youngsters. They're ruining a great business."
Despite their singular failure in duplicating the success of the Silverman formula of cheesecake and teenage punks, the program chiefs at CBS and NBC continued the monkey-see, monkey-do routine. Besides thoroughly horsing up TV for discriminating viewers, these cowardly clones also began to ignore the real art of programing in favor of the sciences of schedule juggling, counter-programing and marketing. The network honchos, Silverman included, lost sight of what they were doing. Instead of programing for us, they programed against one another. In their competitive frenzy, they switched their most popular programs from night to night, attempting to knock off the heavily publicized premiere of a rival program. Happy Days became ABC's favorite weapon against tough newcomers, while M*A*S*H and All in the Family turned the same trick for CBS. They also frequently pre-empted regular programs to present specials, often with little or no advance warning to viewers.
New programs, in particular, took it in the neck. If a rookie series couldn't draw a 30 percent share of the viewers within its first three weeks on the air, it nearly always got canceled. Some shows, such as Coed Fever on CBS, got scrapped before they even got scheduled because they did poorly in the "sneak previews" preceding their official premieres.
This quick-kill factor--coupled with the sudden overload of specials, miniseries and movies that pre-empted regular weekly programs--confused many viewers, causing some to turn off their TVs in exasperation. "For the first time," declared former CBS program chief Mike Dann in 1977, "the American viewer cannot be sure what's on any of the three networks on a given night."
As for marketing, Silverman again blazed the path. Some of his associates now insist that he spent more time supervising the promos, which ran from three to 30 seconds, than developing the programs themselves. Whether that's true or not, Silverman certainly elevated the promo to an exalted position in networkdom. By excerpting a quick gag line and a hysterical laugh track and laying in a breathless voice-over announcer ("Tonight! The Font and Pinky shock the neighborhood!"), Silverman found that he could excite the youngsters in the audience into watching just about anything, as long as the promos triggered the same childish instincts that had made his CBS Saturday-morning schedule such a hit a decade earlier. Silverman even persuaded his superiors to wipe out some commercial availabilities so that he could squeeze in more promos. The ABC hype grew relentless in prime time, and the human copying machines at CBS and NBC followed suit.
But Silverman is nothing if not imaginative. Several times nightly, usually after a commercial break in the middle of an ABC sitcom, he would beam a one-and-a-half-second flash of the ABC logo, bathed in a blue-and-gold hue. The almost subliminal effect was to slam into the minds of viewers the fact that they were watching ABC. Like it or not, that quickie burst of the corporate symbol--night after night after night--ingrained the ABC image into the consciousness of millions of viewers. It left no doubt as to where their allegiance should lie.
The Silverman Era also ushered TV programing totally into the world of Researchthink. Although Freddie sometimes developed ideas strictly in his gut, he usually waited for the reaction of test audiences at places such as Preview House, an ugly marble building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. If the proposed program tested well with the crowd of guinea pigs, the project went full speed ahead. If it did poorly, it usually died. Silverman's counterparts at the other networks--Grant and Klein, in particular--relied even more slavishly on the results of the Preview House type of research.
At Preview House, about half the 400 nightly attendees sit in seats equipped with rheostat dials that can be operated at the twist of a finger. The dial settings range from "very good" to "very dull." The audience is instructed to dial "very good" if they like what they're seeing; if it's a bummer, they're to dial "very dull."
The other half of the crowd is wired with electrodes attached to the finger tips. These galvanic skin sensors supposedly measure the audience's visceral or emotional reactions. All the rheostat dials and electrodes are linked to a master control panel, where technicians monitor the blips on an oscilloscope, the numerals on a meter and a moving paper graph that tracks the audience's peaks of appreciation and valleys of discontent. (Jokes, fights and car chases generally keep the needle high; soft humor or dramatic character development force the needle down.)
As ridiculous as it may seem, and as scientifically invalid as it might be, joints like Preview House are responsible for approving or condemning between 80 and 90 percent of the programs being considered for network prime time. It's a source of terrific frustration for many producers and screenwriters, who see their futures subjected to the whims of a few hundred people in a theater.
"These aren't really normal people," says George Schlatter, the free spirit who invented Laugh-In, among other comedy-variety hits. "These characters hang around outside Preview House, hoping to get inside so they can look at a show and hold a dial in their lap. Right away you know they're questionable. There's not a whole lotta people who sit at home and watch TV with a dial in their lap."
Before the Preview House audiences get to view the actual programs, they're subjected to an ancient Mr. Magoo cartoon, played as a "control" to ensure that the test audience is "normal." The thinking is that if an audience laughs at other shows as much as it laughs at Magoo, then it's just abnormally responsive. Comedy writer Susan Harris explains: "Mr. Magoo usually winds up with between 7.6 and 8.2 on the graph. If any program tests as high as Magoo, they throw it out and start all over with a new audience. On the night I was there, 300 adults were watching this cartoon and roaring in the aisles."
By keying the audience to a lowbrow cartoon, the network bosses grease the way for a favorable reaction to similar juvenile comedies, or to slam-bang, razzle-dazzle dramatic shows. On the other hand, a comedy of quiet distinction or an intelligent character drama stands little chance of approval. Once you prime a crowd for pratfalls and gimmicks, you've set a mood that augurs against mental stimulation.
And that's what has happened with network TV. Starting in 1975, Fred Silverman and the copycats who followed his every move have dealt a bitter blow to the art of programing. What one said quickly became much less important than how he said it. The unsophisticated, juvenile pap, the cheesecake, the constant program shuffling, the heavy accent on promos and marketing techniques and the reliance on bizarre places such as Preview House to determine what gets on the air--all of those factors have reduced the prime-time-TV landscape to a visual and sonic slum.
And now that Freddie's at NBC, where he's president of the entire company, his attitude hasn't changed one iota. After a brief impersonation of a broadcast statesman--during which he vowed to bring us some quality television--he traded in his ill-fitting three-piece pinstripes for the Bermuda shorts and bowling shirt that more accurately represent his social philosophy. The man has the taste of a schmo, and demonstrates it with programs such as Diff'rent Strokes, Hello, Larry, Kate Columbo and BJ and the Bear.
But times are tough for Silverman at NBC. As the chief of a network that could soon become eligible for Federal disaster relief, he's in an ugly fix: He's fighting himself--literally. With ABC still chock-full of hit programs he developed, Freddie's finding that his own act is hard to follow, especially because the ABC execs who filled his shoes have learned his tactics well. And as each new NBC program bombs against entrenched ABC competition, Silverman cancels it in a desperate effort to forge a new winning formula. The $20,000,000 failure of Supertrain, for instance, triggered a rebirth of the Edsel jokes that were such a rage in 1958.
Worse yet, Silverman gets mercilessly lampooned on his own network by Johnny Carson, as well as by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi from Saturday Night Live. With a 1978 profit plummet of 20 percent, Silverman is preparing for an even worse bottom line in '79. And as the basement network in the Nielsen nighttime audience measurements, NBC now is the third place to which producers bring their programs, after ABC and CBS.
But no matter who's on top, it appears that the whole idea of a rating war may soon become moot, because the viewers are catching on that the networks are shooting blanks. In addition to viewer anger about the feast-or-famine madness that foists mostly bush-league entertainment on us for nine months of the year and then pits one decent show against another during the crucial audience-measurement months of February, May and November--a practice that reached its zenith last February 11, when, in the same time slot, CBS telecast Gone with the. Wind, NBC aired One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and ABC presented a surprisingly good biography of Elvis Presley--the audience is voicing a growing resentment of the methods employed by Nielsen to measure our viewing.
Nielsen places its audimeters (those black boxes attached to TV sets) in "typical TV households"--that is, homes in which the family watches a ton of TV, Audimeters record a minute-by-minute account of what's being watched. Nielsen denies it, but network insiders say that if a Nielsen household registers relatively light viewing for a few months, the black box is quickly removed from that home and placed in one where TV viewing is epidemic. Therefore, the TV networks enjoy artificially high audience ratings, and those families that watch TV selectively have little impact on the numbers.
One stimulating program that apparently suffered from this system is The Paper Chase, canceled last spring by CBS. "My impression is that we had a very substantial audience on this show," declares John Houseman, the renaissance man who starred. "But it wasn't necessarily the typical television audience--the people who watch TV six hours a day. I think there were a lot of people who, let's say, watched the evening news and then our show and then nothing else. And those people don't get measured by Nielsen. They put those little black boxes only in houses where the family watched a lot of TV. So when you have a show like ours with a substantial audience that isn't part of that six-hour-a-day audience, it simply doesn't show up in the Nielsens at all."
But the best goes on. And it doesn't really matter now whether Fred Silverman is top banana or cellar dweller at NBC, the damage has been done across the board: It's now normal for TV to insult our intelligence, to appeal to our basest, cruelest instincts. That's why an increasing number of Americans have begun to reject the tube they've lived with for so long--it's like a marriage gone bad.
And as with all marriages, there are memories. It seems like an eternity, but it really wasn't very long ago that Saturday night was the home of TV's golden age of comedy. CBS had put together the most soul-satisfying three-hour comedy block in history, and millions of us would stay at home on Saturday nights just to watch that murderers' row of All in the Family, M*A*S*H and the Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett shows. They were witty, sophisticated, humanistic and nearly always magnificently acted. They actually made you feel good about television.
Today, Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week for a discerning viewer. Archie Bunker has moved to Sundays, Hawkeye Pierce to Mondays and Mary Richards and Bob Hartley have vanished (except for rerun heaven). In their places are CHiPs, BJ and the Bear, The Ropers, Angie, Bad News Bears, The Love Boat and several others. Because of the take-over of the Saturday airwaves by juvenile programs, the thoughtful viewer no longer has much reason to bother with TV on that day.
But the Saturday-night situation is simply an exaggeration of what's ruining television throughout the weekly schedule. Incidentally, in the face of TV's drift deeper and deeper into the adolescent fog, it's important to remember that it's the networks--not necessarily the Hollywood creative community of producers, writers and directors--who are ruining the medium. Great ideas do get proposed from time to time, but the average network executive has the backbone of a squid; and if it comes down to a choice between doing what's right and what's corporately expedient, you can bet that integrity will be runner-up.
Fortunately, the fatuousness, the petty fraud, the audience manipulation, the stultifying censorship and the social indecency that network television frequently stands for are no longer getting a free pass from the American public. The people have realized for quite a while that they've been getting the shaft, but for years they couldn't do anything about their hatreds, frustrations and grievances. It was either keep eating it up or shut it off, and for most folks, TV is simply too irresistible a creation to turn away from. But now--thanks to cable, pay, home video tape and the other new TV technologies--the people have gained a weapon with which to fight back. In the next five or six years, it's entirely possible that network TV's audience ratings could drop by 25 percent or more. By 1985 or so, the American people still will be watching a lot of television; they simply won't be devoting so much of that viewing to the giant networks.
Norman Lear, the brilliant producer who gave us All in the Family, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and America 2Night, may have obliquely put his finger on the coming crunch for network TV when he said, "I'd say television is no more guilty of harming our society than, say, General Motors or Standard Oil."
The crucial difference is that the people can't make much of a dent in G.M. or Standard. But with the new video technology continuing to grow and prosper, the public finally is capable of delivering some nasty blows to the solar plexus of the TV industry. The revolution is here. Don't bet against it.
"That autumn, Silverman took a long, hard look at our country and made a fateful discovery ...."