TELEVISION: Network Scramble

As the Big Three frantically strategize their new schedules for the fall, they've neglected one thing: good shows

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At a press conference in Los Angeles this summer, ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert shocked a gathering of critics and reporters by announcing the end of a TV tradition. Henceforth, he said, ABC would ask producers to eliminate or drastically reduce the opening-credit sequences in their prime-time shows -- and with them theopening theme songs. The goal is to reduce program downtime, when viewers are most tempted to grab the remote control and switch the channel. Logical, perhaps, but rather coldhearted. Imagine Mary Tyler Moore without Mary to "turn the world on with her smile," Gilligan's Island without its bouncy "tale of a fateful trip," Hill Street Blues without Mike Post's opening theme or Twin Peaks without Angelo Badalamenti's.

The opening-credits edict is just one sign of how tough the business of programming has become for a TV network. This should be a season of joy for ABC, CBS and NBC. Their combined audience share rose slightly last season, reversing a long downward trend caused by cable. The advertising market is more active than it has been in years: revenue from the summertime "up- front" selling season reached a record high $4.4 billion. The broadcast networks, dismissed as dinosaurs not long ago, are suddenly hot properties on Wall Street; rumors that one or another of the Big Three is about to be sold seem to be cropping up almost weekly.

The apparent good tidings, however, mask a host of troubles as the fall season gets under way. Fox has thrown a fresh scare into the other networks, stealing several major-market affiliates as well as CBS's Sunday-afternoon pro-football franchise. The number of alternatives, on both cable and broadcast stations, keeps growing, and the remote control has made them easier than ever to find. Indeed, the networks' recent ratings turnabout was due largely to special events like the Winter Olympics, and there's no guarantee the audience erosion won't resume this fall.

The networks have responded by launching a war against channel grazing. All four are moving to shorten opening-credit sequences, spice up the end credits with program material (such as outtakes from the show just seen) and add more "seamless transitions" -- eliminating the commercials between shows -- in an effort to keep viewers hooked. Meanwhile, time slots are more critical than ever to a show's success or failure.

NBC, for example, is jeopardizing one of its hits by a bold -- some would say foolish -- schedule shift. It has moved Frasier, which became a Top 10 show in its comfortable time slot following Seinfeld last season, to Tuesday nights. There the show was set to challenge Roseanne, ABC's powerful but aging hit. But ABC made the game more interesting by pulling its own switch and moving Home Improvement, TV's No. 1 show, to face Frasier on Tuesday. It's the most widely anticipated matchup since The Simpsons took on The Cosby Show in 1990.

As for new shows, scheduling is destiny. Networks now essentially choose their hits before the season starts: shows that get the "protected" time periods following established winners are predominantly the shows that survive. As the networks grow more obsessed with scheduling tactics and audience-flow gimmicks, a show's actual quality seems almost irrelevant. It certainly looks so this season. With one startling, heartening exception, the fall newcomers are a mostly bland and predictable bunch.

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