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Once Upon a Time (1982), the Big 3 Had It Their Way

TV or not TV. . . .

FLASHBACK: To get a real understanding of why network TV often looks like the Titanic, just check back to a season like, say, 1982-83.

In that not-so-long-ago season, before the blossoming of cable and VCRs and the arrival of Fox TV, all of the Top 10 network series averaged 30% to 40% of the audience. The leader was “60 Minutes,” with 40%.

Next came “Dallas,” with 39%. Others in the select circle were: “Magnum, P.I.,” “MASH,” “Dynasty,” “Three’s Company,” “Simon & Simon,” “Falcon Crest,” “The Love Boat” and “Monday Night Football.”

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The bottom fell out fast, and nowadays a 20% audience share, or even less, is considered passable. Any producer who can bring home a series with 30% or better for the season can almost write a lifetime deal.

In that 1982-83 season, even a series as far down as No. 80, “Love, Sidney,” or No. 85, “Bare Essence,” pulled a 20% share.

The Rock Hudson series, “The Devlin Connection,” ranked 95th among 98 shows for the season, but its 18% share could get it renewed today.

BIRTH OF A NATION: Now it’s “Anything but Love,” the Jamie Lee Curtis-Richard Lewis sitcom, that has a pregnancy story--one of the favorite devices of the new season--in its fall premiere on ABC Wednesday.

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And once again, a home pregnancy test is pivotal to the episode, although “Anything but Love” has a surprise twist.

“Murphy Brown,” of course, and “Married . . . With Children” are among other series that have had pregnancy tales.

But although other contemporary series such as “Moonlighting” and “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” have integrated pregnancy into their story lines, the most famous prime-time birth in TV history is still Lucille Ball’s, back in 1953.

Seven episodes of “I Love Lucy” that season dealt with her pregnancy. But CBS banned the word pregnant , although expecting was OK.

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On Jan. 19, 1953, the same day that a boy was born to Lucy on TV as part of the story line, she gave birth in real life to Desi Arnaz Jr. It was big news, even competing with the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

SHOT IN THE FOOT: An important Italian TV executive thinks the networks are being shortsighted with their increased financial cutbacks on dramas and other shows that bring in money overseas.

In fact, says Giampaolo Sodano, director of Italy’s RAI Channel 2, the penny-pinching by the hard-pressed networks is noticeable in the declining quality of their shows.

Sodano, a regular visitor here to buy programs and arrange co-production deals, says the decline can be seen in weekly dramas, TV movies, miniseries and situation comedies: “The new products don’t have that production richness, that glamour, that used to distinguish and characterize the American product.”

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On a recent visit, he said, “We came here for the screenings of the new shows and we didn’t buy anything.”

According to Sodano, RAI Channel 2 has bought such shows as “Miami Vice,” “Hunter,” “Law & Order,” “Santa Barbara,” “Another World” and numerous miniseries. But nowadays, he says, “it’s very difficult to find something that matches the richness of ‘Miami Vice.’ ”

The Italian executive said he was told by Hollywood producers and studios that the networks intended to pay them less for shows, which would result in lower-budget programming.

“Just because there is a lack of resources,” says Sodano, “the risk is that the Americans are going to lose the (international) marketplace. We and other European countries are also facing (economic) shortages, but with a big difference: The European producer of TV has never had the role of conqueror of the international market.”

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Sodano thinks that American shows, such as reality programs, are also increasingly “domestic” in appeal--and, putting that together with the declining quality, the result is that the networks “are shooting themselves in the foot. It is sad to see a great industry in decline.”

Pushing for co-production deals that would provide added financial resources, Sodano says the networks’ “misunderstanding is that they think that if they spend less, they will earn more. That can be true in the short term, but in the long term it will bring them to suicide.”

CITY SLICKERS: In another great network decision, NBC, you may recall, agreed to sell reruns of “Late Night With David Letterman,” one of its trademarks, to a competing cable channel, Arts & Entertainment. So you can see Dave and his repeats on A&E; daily starting Monday at 4 p.m. No, NBC didn’t agree to sell its peacock too.

KID STUFF: Really terrific debut of Linda Ellerbee’s monthly news show for youngsters, “From a Kid’s Point of View,” which aired Sunday on Nickelodeon cable. It vividly explained environmental issues from pollution to garbage. Excellent family viewing, with a rerun scheduled for Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Nick at Nite cable.

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CANDID CAMERA: Wouldn’t you know it? Huell Howser, KCET Channel 28’s resident good ol’ boy, hied himself off to Russia for 11 days with his camcorder during the current upheaval and came back with a slice-of-life show about people and places. A follow-up to his 1990 special “Hello Moscow,” it’s called “Hello Moscow . . . Again!” and airs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

OPEN DOOR: Judge Clarence Thomas says it’s OK with him to allow TV cameras in the Supreme Court. In the Senate hearings on his appointment to the court, he said: “I have no objection to it beyond a concern that the cameras be as unobtrusive as possible. . . . It’s good for the American public to see what’s going on in there.”

CHOICES: If you’re tired of waiting for the TV version of Randy Shilts’ landmark book about AIDS, “And the Band Played On"--first dropped by NBC and now delayed by HBO--you can rent the abridged audio tape version. You can even buy the book.

WAKE-UP CALL: Nice to see Katie Couric back on “Today” after her maternity leave--she does make a difference on the show. But that didn’t stop “Good Morning America” from winning the ratings for Sept. 9-13, its 89th weekly victory in a row.

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BEING THERE: Johnny Carson on Jay Leno’s motorcycle accident: “That’s why I’ve lasted 30 years. I don’t go barreling along Mulholland on a Harley.”

Say good night, Gracie. . . .


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