Editorial: Networks must resist giveaway of prime time

Dec 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Hearst-Argyle CEO David Barrett wants ABC to hand over the 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. hour to its stations, a move that would shake up the very definition of prime time. But as radical as his suggestion may be, it is worth examining-if only to verify that the idea is as bad as it sounds.
Mr. Barrett, whose company owns 12 ABC affiliates, wants to give those stations an opportunity to make more money than they can with ABC’s struggling programming. Such a concession by ABC is unlikely, but coming from the network’s largest group of affiliates, the idea carries some weight. And representatives of other major station groups-among them Sinclair, Meredith and Allbritton-have expressed support for the plan.
The question that must be asked is whether the plan would serve viewers. Station groups suggest that it would, by allowing them to determine the demands of each market at the local level. The networks, understandably, see things differently. They argue that what viewers want is good shows and that the networks need the biggest prime-time window possible to try out new programming in the hope of finding that elusive pot of gold: a hit.
Indeed, it is the networks, not the stations, that are in a position to spend the kind of money needed to develop quality shows. Their success rate in recent years has been less than inspiring, particularly at ABC. But it’s doubtful that stations in most markets would be able to replace network programming with anything better.
The most likely scenario would see local news moving from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m., expanding to an hour in some markets. Any resulting gaps in the schedule would probably be filled by syndicated programming, either off-net fare such as “Seinfeld” or “Friends” or any of countless cheesy first-run talk shows or relationship shows.
Would the viewer be served by having another local outlet for “Blind Date” or the chance to see the Pez dispenser episode of “Seinfeld” for the 10th time? Probably not.
What’s more, the plan would probably drive the final nail into the coffin of “Nightline,” an oasis of issue-oriented programming on an otherwise frivolous late-night landscape. Ted Koppel’s highly regarded ABC News show has struggled to gain clearances while going up against Leno and Letterman. The demise of ABC’s 10 p.m. hour would easily finish off the show, relegating ABC late-night in many markets to syndication and (gasp!) infomercials.
And the ABC scenario could set the dominoes in motion, serving as a model for possible similar moves by CBS and NBC-moves that would drastically redefine television, and not for the better.
Mr. Barrett’s idea is an intriguing one, but it’s also a dangerous one. The networks are wise to resist it.