Cooperation May Revive Ailing Big 3

Looks are deceiving in the TV networks' new fall schedules. On the surface, it's a return to conservative shows. But in the executive suites, the revolution of network TV has begun.

It had to come.

And maybe the best term is evolution , rather than revolution. For with the widely publicized downsizing of network operations and the loss of viewers in the new TV age, the question now is how ABC, CBS and NBC will look in years to come and what they can do to survive.

Some major clues have emerged in recent days--none more remarkable than the news late this week that one of the Big Three, ABC, has taken the groundbreaking step of selling a show, the two-hour TV movie "Fugitive Among Us," to the competing CBS network.

In another significant step, NBC News and its top name, Tom Brokaw, will team with PBS in joint coverage of the 1992 political conventions--with the anchor star and other NBC correspondents even appearing on the public television network.

The ABC-CBS deal raised eyebrows as the two ratings rivals decided to do business with each other in one of the most unprecedented agreements in half a century of American TV. But more significant than the single purchase of a TV movie, which stars Peter Strauss as a cop and Eric Roberts as an escaped convict he pursues, is the indication of the networks' search for a way out of their new competitive dilemma.

With all their troubles, the Big Three, after all, still attract nearly two-thirds of the TV audience--far more than anyone else--and are looking for the magic moves that will open new vistas, re-create the networks for the modern world and dispel the widespread notions that they are dinosaurs soon to be extinct.

One of the keys to survival is the Big Three's in-house production units, which have not been noticeably successful thus far but could provide vast revenue through increased network ownership of shows that are sold to anyone, including competitors.

If, for instance, ABC Productions, the in-house network unit that concluded the deal for "Fugitive Among Us," created a smash sitcom such as "The Cosby Show" or "Roseanne" for NBC or CBS, it might provide the competition with big ratings--but it could also bring in millions to ABC and have a strong impact on the company's profit sheet.

Actually, "Fugitive Among Us" was not originally an ABC property. Launched by the Andrew Adelson Co., it was put into development by CBS last year. But then the Adelson firm aligned itself with ABC Productions, and the show is being produced in association with the in-house unit, which finally negotiated the deal and the price with CBS.

Previously, former NBC Entertainment boss Brandon Tartikoff, now chairman of Paramount Pictures, approached ABC Productions to develop a TV series idea, but that project did not pan out. Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC Productions, confirmed that "Fugitive Among Us" is his unit's first production for another of the Big Three networks.

Asked what benefits ABC could reap from selling CBS a movie that might defeat programming on his own network in the ratings, Stoddard said:

"What happens is that we make money on this movie, and hopefully that ends as a profit for (ABC owner) Capital Cities. CBS is going to run a movie in the time slot whether or not it's 'Fugitive Among Us,' so we might as well make money from it.

"The other benefit is that it's now clear that the three in-house production companies are going to be capable of producing for other networks. It is a precedent that is important. What it means is that the heads of the network entertainment divisions are going to be able to look to two additional programming sources for their scheduling."

ABC Productions operates as a quasi-independent studio within the network. If it develops an idea on its own, it must give the ABC Entertainment division first crack at it. For example, the recent, short-lived ABC series "My Life and Times" came from ABC Productions.

If, however, an outside company asks ABC Productions--or any of its talent--to develop or finance a project, the in-house unit is not obligated to give first refusal to its own network. In the case of "Fugitive Among Us," the deal between Adelson and CBS was already in progress, although not consummated until this week by ABC Productions.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so sleeping with the enemy now is part of the networks' guide book for survival, even as rumors continue that NBC and CBS may be sold.

The NBC-PBS political convention teaming is a case in point. The two TV services have a common foe, cable, which will offer blanket coverage of the conventions on CNN and C-SPAN. NBC, like the other networks, really doesn't want to broadcast the conventions anymore; entertainment is more profitable. PBS, meanwhile, backed out of a plan to cover the Democratic and Republican conclaves on its own.

Thus, a New Age alliance: NBC News, battered by cutbacks, gets a high-tone outlet on PBS. And PBS gets some network glitz. Both broadcast organizations save big dough. And since NBC now averages only 20% of the TV audience, and PBS gets just 3%, both need some kind of fix.

Well, at least they're thinking.

And you can imagine the nightmares of NBC executives who recall that just four years ago "The Cosby Show" averaged 53% of the audience-- for the whole season --and that "Family Ties" drew 49% and "Cheers" 41%. It was the last real blaze of network glory before the roof fell in.

The first signs of what could eventually lead to mergers of ABC, CBS or NBC with cable networks--even pay-TV outlets--are surfacing. The Nickelodeon cable channel produced the sitcom "Hi Honey, I'm Home" for airing by both itself and ABC this summer. Companies ranging from Fox to HBO are involved in business relationships with competitors.

The revolution--or evolution--has its upside and downside. It's sad, for instance, that NBC has become so vulnerable that, beginning Sept. 2, the venerable "Tonight Show" will start five minutes later at the insistence of affiliate stations so they can squeeze in more commercials on their late-night news programs.

We could be in for great times, too--perhaps one of the Big Three networks, or maybe even two, weaving in the best elements of a cable partner in a fine and definitely achievable blend of news, sports and entertainment.

It's a whole new TV world out there, and only visionary thinking by the Big Three will enable them to survive--in a new form--and be part of it into the next century.

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