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Crafty Fox Takes Bite Of Networks’ Share

Sun., Jan. 1, 1995

The year in television

If 1994 threw television for a loop, then 1995 could be a continuous Tilt-a-Whirl.

Consider just two events set in motion this year: TV’s nonstop O.J. Simpson coverage and Fox’s May day raid of mostly CBS stations. It seems as though they’ve been with us forever, but they’ll come to a boil in 1995.

Even so, this has been a year of landmark, chain-reaction change. Fox, the cunning beast headed by Rupert Murdoch, took both pro football and big-market stations away from the most storied network in the land. CBS and its other competitors responded by cutting their own new station deals.

The Earth shook and hasn’t stopped. Seemingly rock-solid network/affiliate station relationships, many dating to the dawn of television, have been sent tumbling by high-rollers in search of profits without honor. Or to quote NBC president Don Ohlmeyer, “Rupert Murdoch is coming in, and he’s screwing up this entire business. … All of these forces are tearing into the very fabric of network television.”

Nonetheless, in ‘94 the fabric was made of better-quality cloth. Hourlong drama series enjoyed a modern-day Golden Age, while news magazine series saw their ratings suddenly tarnish. “ER,” “Chicago Hope” and the soon-to-expire “My So-Called Life” joined an already impressive crop, including “Picket Fences,” “NYPD Blue,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Law & Order” and - let’s be charitable - “Northern Exposure.” In the face of such splendor, quickie Roseanne and Tom movies by NBC and Fox were megaflops, despite the heavy publicity preceding them.

But TV’s good side often intersected with the twisting road leading to Simpson’s murder trial. “Hard Copy” and “Geraldo” gleefully pounced, of course. But the mainstream news shows were equally voracious, segueing from Tonya/ Nancy to O.J./Nicole with the ease of Wink Martindale taking on a new game show. Under the circumstances, Connie Chung did what she had to do: “exclusive” interviews with both Tonya Harding and an O.J. basher peddling a bookful of tattletales.

The year brought a quieting to the once-raging debate about TV violence. Members of Congress railed for a while and then seemed to poop out on the issue. Bullish visions of the electronic “superhighway” became clouded after financial realities and viewer resistance kicked in.

By late 1994, viewers were finally getting used to Pat Summerall and John Madden urging them to stay tuned for “The Simpsons” instead of “60 Minutes.” And to “Roseanne” on Wednesdays and “Frasier” on Tuesdays. And to no more promotions for “Scarlett.”

For all its shakes and rattles, the year is ending without the Big Three networks on their knees. They remain resistant, if not impervious, to the Fox in their midst and the cable networks circling their perimeters. If anything, the blows they absorbed in 1994 may have been more a wake-up call than a cause for alarm. As always, stay tuned.


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