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The TV Networks Need Rulers Who Will Break the Rules

Watching CBS’ new savior, Jeff Sagansky, hold his first press conference this week, I kept wondering whether he’d ever heard William Link, co-creator of “Columbo,” describe the origins of that classic Peter Falk detective show.

It “should have been a failure,” Link said, because it broke five cardinal rules of network TV: “It had very little action and almost no sex. The central character often didn’t enter until 15 or 20 minutes after the opening credits. The plots were complex, demanding the viewer’s strict attention. Entire episodes could be nothing more than stretches of cat-and-mouse dialogue. The lead, when he finally did show up, wasn’t a 6-foot, granite-jawed, two-fisted hunk of macho bravado, but a short, klutzy, badly groomed, ill-attired career officer who didn’t carry a gun and was easily winded.”

In short, it not only broke the rules, it decimated them. Sagansky, CBS’ 37-year-old president of entertainment, said encouragingly that he wanted to take lots of chances. But he also spent much time worrying aloud about demographics--the fact that his network has an older audience, which presumably is a capital crime punishable by death on Madison Avenue. Sagansky seems a bright fellow, but he already was exhibiting extreme sensitivity to television’s inbred rigidity toward corporate research that discourages breaking the rules.

By chance, the very same day this week, another bright fellow, Tom Capra, the 48-year-old news director of top-rated KNBC Channel 4, was appointed executive producer of NBC’s “Today” show. And I know--I absolutely know--he’s familiar with the line spoken by Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane” that I came across accidentally while leafing through some papers before speaking to Capra:

“I don’t know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher,” said Kane. “I just try everything I can think of.”

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In short, another rule breaker. And Capra has shown undoubted versatility at KNBC--his splashy approach does not prevent the station from handling major stories with dispatch. Yet, describing the “Today” show, he called it “super-serious right now” and advocated such antidotes as more health news (“I love Dr. Art Ulene”) and entertainment reporting. Like Sagansky, he was reacting almost instinctively to the rigid research mentality that says you have to attract more women 18 to 34 years old because, in Capra’s case, he has to contend with ABC’s very competitive “Good Morning America.”

Two capable executives, Sagansky and Capra, yet both weaned on the values of a failing network system that they know is flawed, but can’t shake entirely, like the flu. Capra’s statement that the “Today” show is “super-serious” is rather startling. Bryant Gumbel and Deborah Norville super-serious? Willard Scott and Gene Shalit super-serious? Well, perhaps if your stars have been Fritz Coleman and Fred Roggin, sometimes addressed as “Fritzie” and “Freddie” on the KNBC news.

Capra made clear that he felt the subject matter on “Today” was among the principal elements that need “modernizing.” Less science, more health with Dr. Art Ulene, for instance. Well, here’s what we’re coming to:

Just as all of the Big Three networks are seeking the same demographic audience in prime time, so are all of their morning shows shaking down to almost copycat, lightweight, magazine formats targeted at identical groups of viewers. Nowhere on any of the morning shows, for instance, is there the slightest indication that really super-serious journalists like Bill Moyers, Eric Sevareid or the late Edward R. Murrow would have any chance of gaining employment.

It’s not that “Today” has an exactly virginal journalistic lineage. Let us not forget that in its early days, the host, and a wonderful one, was a former disc jockey named Dave Garroway--who was born for morning television--and a reigning star of the series was a wildly popular chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs.

But over the years, while CBS struggled to create a comparable morning show and ABC did mount a successful entry hosted by former actor David Hartman, NBC’s “Today” built an impressive news image with a succession of anchors that included John Chancellor, Frank McGee and Tom Brokaw. In fact, even today, the very first paragraph of NBC’s press packet on “Today” emphasizes this image and priority, stating that the show’s “hallmark has been its ability to revise an entire program around a late-breaking news event.”

The sickness of much TV news--and entertainment--these days is their pursuit of the lower truths, which leads to a cheapening of life. Thus, when a couple of talented guys like Sagansky and Capra suddenly get into positions of enormous influence, you hope they’ll somehow burst free from the years of network indoctrination that has wormed its way into their thinking, and go for breakout forms that exhilarate and uplift viewers. That’s not merely wishful thinking--it’s good business, because TV’s biggest hits invariably are those that break the rules. Consider:

You can start with “Today” itself--there was never anything like it. And the “Tonight” show--another ground-breaker. And “60 Minutes.” And “All in the Family,” which became perhaps the most influential TV comedy of all time as it broke countless taboos with Carroll O’Connor as bigot Archie Bunker. And “Laugh-In,” which had the same kind of stupendous social impact in variety programming as “All in the Family” did as a sitcom. And “Cagney & Lacey,” a television landmark for feminist thinking.

And more: Cable News Network--CNN--for instance. And C-SPAN. And “The Cosby Show,” which was given little chance because TV comedy was dead at the time it debuted. And “Murder, She Wrote,” which broke the rules by offering Angela Lansbury as a middle-age woman detective with no major male co-star. And “Hill Street Blues,” which captured the 1980s in a bottle.

And ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” now starting its 30th year, and “Monday Night Football,” 20 years old, and “Nightline,” with us now for 10 years--all these shows the creation of one man, Roone Arledge, just as former NBC President Sylvester (Pat) Weaver gave us “Today” and “Tonight.”

At the moment, ABC--the network of “Roseanne,” “thirtysomething” and “The Wonder Years"--remains the leader in the search for breakout hits, daring TV again with two intriguing upcoming series using the generally abandoned half-hour dramatic form. One is “Elvis,” which debuts Feb. 6 with Michael St. Gerard portraying Elvis Presley as a young man. The other, due this spring, is “Brewster Place,” with Oprah Winfrey in a weekly story based on her TV movie about black women in a ghetto.

Miracles are always there for the making in TV. If you are Jeff Sagansky or Tom Capra, you are now entering the twilight zone for TV executives. It can be a terrifying place, or a thrilling one.


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