The Big Three

RemingtonIn the 1980s, America’s three television networks changed hands.

ABC to Capital Cities.  NBC to General Electric.  CBS to Loews.

Ken Auletta documented the decade in his 1991 book Three Blind Mice:  How the TV Networks Lost Their Way.  It is, indeed, a fantastic chronicle of the takeovers, trials, and travails that changed the television industry.  Auletta undertakes a tremendously detailed approach to spotlight the thoughts, strategies, and friars of the media moguls in the executive suites.

In the chapter NBC:  Tartikoff In His Sandbox, 1987, Auletta writes about NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, a favorite son in the television industry.  Auletta zeroes in on the programming wunderkind’s observations of the obstacles in network television.  “Nor was Tartikoff sure that with the explosion of buyers—from cable, Fox, and first-run syndication, among others—there was sufficient talent to stock a twenty-two hour prime-time schedule,” Auletta writes.  Tartikoff knew that success in network television often came when a producer believed passionately in a project—be it Norman Lear with All in the Family, James Brooks with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Steven Bochco with Hill Street Blues.  But Tartikoff also knew the network television production system was a sausage factory.”

In addition, the Big Three also faced the increasing power of the Video Cassette Recorder, an affordable device by the mid-1980s; it allowed viewers to tape shows off the air.  Consequently, viewers had the flexibility to make their own schedule for watching the shows.  No longer were they tied to the broadcast schedules of the networks.

If viewers could shift the viewing times of their favorite shows, then commercials could be ignored by virtue of the Fast Forward button.  In turn, advertisers become unhappy, causing worry among the networks; advertising dollars may decrease or, in a worst-case scenario, disappear.  Simply, when the viewers are no longer captive, advertising loses its impact.

The Big Three faced another challenge with the upstart FOX network,  Debuting in 1986, FOX did not have seven nights of programming nor did it have a network news division.  And, surely, it did not have recognizable stars in its nascent days, save for one.  In November, FOX launched The Late Show starring Joan Rivers.  Sunday night programming followed in Spring 1987.

With the edgy sitcom Married With Children, the innovative cartoon show The Simpsons, and the sketch comedy program The Tracey Ullman Show, FOX began to make pinpricks in the armor of CBS, NBC, and ABC.  Invulnerability of these television goliaths proved to be a fallacy in the 1990s, when FOX attracted the highly valuable demographic of teenagers and twenty somethings with nighttime soap operas geared to younger audiences.  Beverly Hills 90210 was a mammoth hit, spinning off Melrose Place.

In the chapter ABC:  More Sancho Panza Than Machiavelli, September to December, 1986, Auletta summarized the impact of FOX chieftain Rupert Murdoch.  “The future also belonged, some feared, to Rupert Murdoch’s scheme to make Fox a fourth network by acquiring stations in six of the top ten markets, lining up affiliated stations, and setting up a programming department, just as the three networks did,” Auletta writes.

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