Changing Forces Are at Play in Land of New Behemoths


Twelve years isn’t very long in geologic, historic or cultural terms. The Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs walked the Earth without help from Steven Spielberg, lasted 160 million years. The Renaissance spanned more than a century. Cinephiles determined to consume all six episodes of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga won’t be done until 28 years after the whole thing started.

In television, however, a dozen years is long enough to witness a seismic shift, which may provide some context to the forces at play as the Writers Guild of America--whose members last went on strike in 1988--negotiate a new contract, against the backdrop of a possible work stoppage that could ripple through the local economy, delay the next TV season and deprive those clamoring for another Adam Sandler movie.

This isn’t to say prime-time television, in terms of what viewers see, has necessarily changed all that much. Both in 1988 and 2001, you find spry seniors in whodunits (then: “Murder, She Wrote”; now: “Diagnosis Murder”), good-looking lawyers with principles (then: “L.A. Law”; now: “The Practice”), angst-ridden yuppies discussing their feelings (then: “thirtysomething”; now: “Once and Again”), youths comically coming of age (then: “The Wonder Years”; now: “Malcolm in the Middle”), high school shows with “kids” who look about 27 (then: “Head of the Class”; now: “Popular”), and “We are not alone” E.T.-chasers (then: “Something Is Out There”; now: “The X-Files”).


Then, as now, you also had “60 Minutes” ticking away Sundays and “20/20” in touch Fridays, “America’s Most Wanted,” a Sunday evening Disney showcase, even series with Dick Van Dyke and Tony Danza--who switched from comedy to drama (“The Van Dyke Show” to “Diagnosis Murder”) and vice versa (“Who’s the Boss?” to “Family Law”).

Yet for all these similarities, the television business has undergone a dramatic transformation, and the most obvious aspect of that--fragmentation of viewership among an exploding menu of channels and choices--only scratches the surface.

Stepping into the way-back machine, ABC, CBS and NBC still towered over the competition in 1988, accounting for two-thirds of prime-time viewing. The year-old Fox network was little more than a growing blip on the radar, and the WB and UPN didn’t exist--a description that also applied to DVD players and home Internet access.

Today, the three elder networks plus a fully grown Fox attract barely half the available TV audience. According to Westfield, N.J.-based Statistical Research Inc., roughly 4 in 5 households subscribe to additional channels via cable or satellite. The percentages of homes with video-game systems and home computers have more than doubled and tripled, respectively.

Devastating as these trends appear to the major networks, two factors have served to mitigate them. The first, and most significant, happened when the entertainment industry was unshackled from federal rules that effectively prevented studios from owning networks, opening the door to a frenzy of consolidation. The other, so simple as to be easily overlooked, involves steady population growth.

The impact of consolidation has overwhelmed the industry in the last half-dozen years, centralizing an unprecedented amount of control over entertainment and media among a handful of companies.


Consider CBS, a stand-alone entity in 1988. The network is currently owned by Viacom, whose holdings include Paramount, UPN, King World, MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Black Entertainment Television, Showtime, TNN and a host of other media assets.

In similar fashion, ABC--purchased by Disney in 1996--counts ESPN, Lifetime, the Disney Channel and A&E; among its wholly or partly owned sister channels. Fox has branched out with FX, Fox News Channel and Fox Sports Net in addition to a burgeoning empire of TV stations; NBC’s brand now encompasses MSNBC, CNBC and part of the Pax network.

So while the TV audience has been splintered, many of the options siphoning eyeballs away from traditional networks are owned by the same companies--among them AOL Time Warner, with the WB, CNN, HBO, TNT, TBS and Cartoon Network in its alphabet soup.

Moreover, though it’s true that the major networks account for a smaller share of the viewing pie, that pie has expanded--from just over 90 million U.S. households with television in ‘88, according to Nielsen Media Research, to more than 102 million today.

Not only are there more people, but they are also watching more television, on more TV sets per home. That means Mom can view CBS in one room as a teenage daughter peruses MTV in another and a young son tunes in Nickelodeon in a third--all without ever leaving the Viacom fold, in what the company has touted as a “cradle to grave” hold on viewers and, more important, advertisers.

Finally, despite the decline in network ratings, the money has kept rolling in. Global markets have matured, bringing in more revenue from abroad. On the domestic front, prime-time upfront advertising (that is, commercial time sold in advance of the new TV season) totaled $3.3 billion in 1988. With WB and UPN thrown in, 2000 upfront network sales reached $8 billion--a 140% increase that, contrary to popular belief, did not entirely go to the casts of “ER” and “Friends.”


What can be gleaned from these gee-whiz statistics, aside from a splitting headache?

The final answer, to put it in contemporary terms, is that while the monolithic stranglehold the “Big Three” networks enjoyed has been, thankfully, broken, the influence of a few major conglomerates over what the public sees and hears is more deeply entrenched than perhaps ever before.

At the same time, denying these vast enterprises the creative talents of screenwriters or actors won’t diminish their theme parks, sports franchises and publishing operations. Indeed, it may even temporarily help ratings for sister networks, since people missing their favorite series won’t quit watching TV but may be more inclined to watch college basketball on Disney-owned ESPN, a movie on Time Warner’s HBO or videos on Viacom’s MTV.

This isn’t to say Hollywood’s guilds and unions are inevitably doomed to failure in future negotiations, only to point out they square off opposite companies far more formidable than the ones that held out five grueling months during the last WGA strike. Although that may not seem very long ago, the intervening years have given birth to a new breed of show-business behemoth--one even visionaries like Lucas and Spielberg, circa 1988, would have been hard-pressed to imagine.


Brian Lowry’s column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached by e-mail at


Then . . . and Now

Some things change, and some things don’t: There’s not much difference between the prime-time angst of “thirtysomething” in 1988 and “Once and Again” today. But the TV world as a whole has undergone a radical transformation since the last Writers Guild of America strike in 1988:


ENTERTAINMENT OPTIONS IN HOMES FALL 2000 FALL 1988 At least two TVs 75% 62% Cable or satellite 79% 52% VCR 91% 60% Personal computer 54% 16% Video-game system (for TV) 37% 18% DVD 8% N/A Internet 46% N/A 20-plus channels 76% 31%



Source: Statistical Research Inc.