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Viewers Send a Message: Oldies Still Goodies : Television: The ratings success of CBS’ Ed Sullivan, Mary Tyler Moore and ‘All in the Family’ retrospectives may doom innovative entries in the ‘Twin Peaks’ mode.

This was going to be TV’s breakout season. Remember? Goodby to the tried and true. Hello, originality.

“Cop Rock” was coming. “Twin Peaks” and “China Beach” were back. A rap star, Will Smith, would be a sensation in “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

So what happened?

Don’t ask.

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“Cop Rock,” “Twin Peaks” and “China Beach” are all gone from ABC’s lineup--more’s the pity. “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” is a modest NBC success.

And what was the big hit of the last week? A three-night retrospective from TV’s past--CBS specials on “All in the Family,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

What’s the message here?

Was it just a war-time escape into nostalgia? Was it simply a case of CBS choosing three of TV’s all-time great series at just the right moment? Or was it a strong signal from viewers to the networks that top-grade mainstream entertainment is still what TV is all about?

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It’s probably all of those messages. And, of course, all of the three classics that viewers flocked to in droves during the past week broke new ground when they first debuted.

But the major question is whether the success of CBS’ three retrospectives, coupled with the ratings flops of such avant-garde entries as “Cop Rock” and “Twin Peaks,” will send the networks--always on the lookout for a trend--scrambling into a full-scale retreat into the past.

Back to the future, in a manner of speaking.

The timing of the Sullivan smash may have set some network executives thinking. It came, coincidentally, soon after “Twin Peaks,” a prime symbol of TV hipness, was yanked from ABC’s lineup, with its remaining half-dozen episodes to be run out later.

Anyone who watched the Sullivan show years ago knows it was often an excruciating bore, with countless forgettable jugglers and acrobats sandwiched between great stars. And let’s not forget that “Twin Peaks” had a whopping rating in its own debut, a classic in its own right.

But with “The Simpsons” just about the only new breakout show that’s still maintaining real audience appeal, the financially pressed networks may well be inclined to fall back on conservative thinking again, especially in a soft ad market.

Naturally, “The Simpsons” has inspired other cartoon projects. But spokesmen for the Big Three networks indicate that, overall, way-out shows emulating the experimentation of such series as “Twin Peaks” and “Cop Rock” are not in the works.

ABC does have an upcoming sitcom called “Dinosaurs,” co-produced by Brian Henson, son of the late Muppets creator, Jim Henson. It’s about “a family of dinosaurs

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not an animated show, but live, full-size creatures with a curmudgeonly father,” says an ABC spokesman.

But as for extreme gambles--"not in terms of drama,” adds the spokesman.

ABC has, however, taken the unprecedented step of asking two cable networks, MTV and Nickelodeon, to help it develop weekend programming--to hook the youthful audience it failed to grab in its pairing of “China Beach” and “Twin Peaks” on Saturdays, a frank attempt to lure young viewers from VCRs.

At NBC, a spokeswoman said, “I don’t think we have anything coming up that’s off-the-wall.” At CBS, a spokeswoman indicated that the network, the only one of the Big Three that avoided experimentation this season--and cashed in with the nostalgic retrospectives--looks pretty mainstream for the immediate future: “I think so, yes.”

Ratings talk in TV, and the figures for the CBS retrospectives spoke volumes.

Sunday’s Sullivan tribute startled the TV industry when it finished No. 2 among all programs last week in terms of households tuned in, attracted 33% of the national audience and drew more viewers than any other show--33,760,000.

The “All in the Family” special, in some ways, made an even more impressive showing. Airing last Saturday--a night when CBS is just about dead--it drew 25% of the audience and beat two episodes of NBC’s powerful series “The Golden Girls” head-on.

As for the look back at “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” it earned 26% of all viewers and gave CBS its highest-rated Monday night of the season.

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And although, predictably, all three retrospectives drew their biggest audiences from viewers 50 years old and over, the shows registered solid demographics with most age groups.

NBC had good instincts when it tried to mount a new Sullivan-style pilot show with Larry King as host earlier this season, even though it failed because of poor execution.

Producer David Levy, meanwhile, has tried to sell the Big Three on a series that would bring back popular old TV shows and be called “One More Time.” Arguing that the concept has “far less risk than scheduling a totally new show,” his outline adds: “There is considerable evidence to prove that the audience will be very receptive.”

And how.

TV specials reuniting the casts of old series have done well, and a 1990 CBS program incorporating the pilot episode of “I Love Lucy” went through the roof in the ratings. In addition, cable channels such as Nickelodeon have done wonders re-packaging popular old TV series with wit and charm.

So successful were CBS’ retrospectives that they have kept the last-place network highly competitive in the February ratings sweeps period, aided by such other specials as Wednesday’s Grammy Awards show, which pulled 31% of the audience.

CBS also geared up Friday’s Miss USA Pageant--its answer to NBC’s Miss America contest--with a patriotic theme from its setting in the heartland city of Wichita, Kan., in another move to maintain its strong showing.

It’s intriguing to see CBS, struggling to survive, bid for a comeback with its sweeps strategy, especially drawing on its glorious past. But in the long run, viewers are the losers when exhilarating creative gambles such as “Cop Rock,” “Twin Peaks” and “China Beach” fade out. ABC had the guts to put them on, and one hopes it doesn’t suddenly desert the instincts that have made it the most interesting network to watch.

ABC looks quite different and more ordinary without these shows. And when “thirtysomething” takes a six-week hiatus March 5 to make way for a tryout series called “Eddie Dodd,” with Treat Williams as a lawyer, it will look even less its former self--the home of drama series that have made a difference.

In the end, it didn’t help to move around “Twin Peaks” and “China Beach"--viewers got lost, as they often do by such program-shuffling. Consider, for instance, how CBS’ “Knots Landing,” remaining in its Thursday slot for years, now has become the fourth longest-running series in TV history, behind only “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “Dallas.” It shot its 300th episode this week.

Goodby (for a while), experimentation. Hello, tried and true.


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