Video: The Big Boys' Blues

Challenged by cable, VCRs and an audience eager to zap, the networks face the most troubled fall in their history

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Like all good TV dramas, this one starts with an exciting precredit sequence. The time is early 1979, and the network wars have reached a frenzied peak. Sitcoms like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley are riding high in the Nielsens. Blockbuster mini-series are vying to reproduce the huge audiences that tuned in for Roots. Star programmer Fred Silverman, the Man with the Golden Gut, is ready to try everything from Gary Coleman to Supertrain in his quest to lift NBC out of the prime-time ratings cellar.

So fade in to Sunday, Feb. 11, 1979, the evening of the most widely publicized programming matchup in TV history. On CBS: a rare telecast of Gone With the Wind. On NBC: the TV debut of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On ABC: a much hyped TV movie, Elvis! Some network programmers grumble that this costly confrontation amounts to a three-way kamikaze mission. But it draws the crowds. Elvis! wins a 40% share of the viewing audience, Gone With the Wind gets 36%, and Cuckoo's Nest pulls in 32%. Does that add up to more than 100%? Indeed: some households had two sets on.

Now cut to fall of 1988 and, in network television, nothing adds up. The three networks are still scrapping with one another for ratings supremacy, but the days when they dominated the airwaves so thoroughly are just a Wonder Years memory. Only a few theatrical movies comparable to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest show up on network TV anymore; when they do, most people have already seen them on pay cable or videocassette. Gone With the Wind is no longer available to the networks at all; rights to it are owned by Atlanta TV mogul Ted Turner, who used it to launch his new cable channel, TNT, last week. And the days when TV movies could attract 40% of the viewing audience, almost without trying, are as dead as Elvis.

NBC, ABC and CBS -- the three companies that have virtually defined American television since the days of Uncle Miltie, Maverick and Playhouse 90 -- may not be dying, but they are sick and fighting for survival. Eating away at their audience is a panoply of new video choices: cable channels, independent stations, videocassette recorders, even an upstart "fourth network." The three networks' combined share of the audience shrank to a low of 70% last season, and the decline shows no signs of leveling off. New technologies like home satellite dishes and fiber-optic cable could eventually pose even greater threats. "We've been outplayed, outsold, outmarketed, outhustled by younger entrepreneurs," says Howard Stringer, the former president of CBS News recently promoted to head of the CBS Broadcast Group. "We are still the Goliath of broadcasting, but we will be slain by all the little Davids if we don't pay attention to them."

As if that weren't trauma enough, the networks are struggling through their worst autumn ever. Because of the five-month writers' strike, which shut down production on most shows during the spring and summer, the fall season is a shambles. The first of the new series premiered on NBC last week, but others will take months to dribble in. The disruption could give viewers one more excuse to flip the dial and sample the competition -- just what the networks don't need.

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