Mal Potter of WTAE-TV in Pittsburg was standing in front of a room full of his fellow ABC affiliates when suddenly he was overcome with a zest to testify. "Isn't it great to be at ABC?" he shouted. "Can you imagine what's going on down the hall? It's got to be dreadful. It really does. Hopefully."
What was going on down the hall were meetings of the NBC and CBS affiliates, all held during one afternoon of the 15th Program Executive (NATPE) here. Naturally enough, all was not smiles, and pusses tended to be more sour at the other networks, because ABC, as even the residents of Tristan da Cunha must know by now, is number one, topdogs, numero uno, king of mountain, queen of the May and the top rated of the three commerical networks.
As Annie Hall would say, lah-dee-dah.
All the networks make money and all the network affiliates make money, but the network with the highest ratings can charge the most for advertising time; and the affiliate share of that revenue, which is calculated through a complicated financial formula, gets larger. Also, high network ratings tend to spill over into local time periods, including those occupied by the local station's all important and highly profitable news shows.
So down the hall in the third placed NBC affiliate room, head programmer Paul L. Klein was trying to take a bemused and philosophical approach. He said that he'd found another wrinkle in the ratings system and that recently completed Nielsen "sweep" ratings may be faulty. "Who knows?" said Klein. "Maybe we are the number one network."
Earlier, announcing new programming projects, CBS vice president B. Donald Grant danced merrily along the proverbial bottom line when he declared, We are trying to go for number one - not for second place. As Vincent Lombardi once said, 'Winning isn't everything - it's the only thing.'"
Meanwhile, back at ABC, Anthony D. Thomopoulis, the successor to the gur of programming Fred Silverman, was happily telling the ABC affiliates that they were "198 of the most smartest, brightest, respected broadcasters in the world." And Jmaes E. Duffy, president of the network, was pouring out good news faster than Henny Youngman is one liners."In the February sweeps we did very well and you will do very well," Duffy assured the station program directors and general managers.
"ABC has won 21 of the 24 weeks so far this season," Duffy said. "The top 10 for the season are all ABC shows. In daytime, 'Good Morning American' has gone from a 2.6 rating to a 3.3 in a year, and we are now really closing in on the "Today' show."
In terms of "gross billings" to advertisers, ABC stations are up 11 percent over last season, Duffy said, making ABC "the largest advertising medium in the world," with 1977 sales that surpassed $1 billion. And those poor tagalongs at CBS and NBC - their gross billings only went up 6 percent.
Whatever will they do?
After all the proclamations of wealth and success were over, the floor at the ABC affiliates meeting was open for questions. Here was a chance for the affiliates to voice their complaints about the quailty of network programming, the lack of worthwhile fare, the scarcity of originality and abundance of self-imitative claptrap. This was a chance to take a stand for their viewers back home.
A man who said he was from "the mountain zone" declared that the "explicit subject matter" of ABC's recently televised movie "Such Good Friends" made it improper programming and claimed the network had promoted it during family viewing hours.
Thomopoulis made it very clear that he took this question very seriously. "It certainly was an adult picuture," Thomopoulis said. "But we very carefully edited it. I think part of the problem is that the public perception of sex on television has been brought to the forefront by the other media, and that perception is erroneous."
Thomopoulis conceded that the film "could have offended certain people,"but he said, "We handled it very responsibly."
Duffy was brisker and more to the point. "I don't think it was that good of a picture, from many standpoints," he said, but then he moved from defense to offense. It's the major national news magazines" who are stirring up the bother over alledged sex on TV, Duffy said. "They are doing the very thing they accuse television of doing - being exploitative. Newsweek came in a few weeks ago for their cover on "Three's Company" and they brought in their own photographer and set up a very salacious kind of pose. US magazine did the same thing."
Duffy said that compared to other media, TV is "absolutely puritonic (sic)" in its treatment of sex and that compared to TV systems in other countries, "American television is kindergarten."
It is dangerous sport to agree with network president, but Duffy had a point. The issue of sex on television this year is one of the big smokescreen farces of all time. There may be indeed an over abundance of girlies in bikinis and men playing buddy boys; but every TV season is marked by a surface excess of some program element, and compared to the cop show dementia of previous seasons, the beach-blanket follies seem like a breath of fresh nitrousoxide.
Television networks take plenty of flock, week end and week, out for what they do and don't do. Klein noted recently that TV columnists have repeatedly crticized NBC for doing too many specials and long-form projects at the expense of building up a healthy stable of regular weekly shows. "A few years ago, all you heard was, why don't they do more specials?" Klein moped. "Now suddenly everybody wants more rotten little series."
One must occasionally take time to realize that it is not invariably or by any means exclusively the networks who are to blame for the state of TV quailty. Blame also lies with those the networks are trying to please, their own greedy affiliates, and with the independent stations in many markets who compete with network stations by reaching into the grab-bag of game shows and gimmicks on sale here at this convention and often coming up with the cheapest possible choices.
It isn't the network who developed the chirpy, smirky eyewitness news teams in their bland blazers; it's the local stations. It isn't the networks who carve 30 minutes out of a two-hour movie classic to squeeze in commercials on a weekday afternoon. It isn't the networks who ignore the protest of activist groups and go right ahead programming ultraviolence, sometimes imported low-level cartoons for the kiddy hours. It isn't the networks who will sell huge blocks of programming time to anyself-proclaimed evangelist or would-be faith healer who has the big bucks to buy them.
When networks air commentariers or editorials, at least they hire journalists to do them. They don't put sales executives or general managers on the air to read platitudes off a Telepromp Ter.
At the ABC affiliates meeting it was asked if ABC, like NBC and CBS, would schedule a half hour news show for early Sunday evening. "I hope not," muttered one affiliate near the back of the room. He hoped not because his station can make more money in that time period with its own programming sold by its own salesmen.
Many local stations, and many commonly-owned groups of stations, are enterprising, community minded and blatantly conscientious, even if their efforts in these directions sometimes seem more like public relations than public service. Ironically, networks, unlike stations, are not directly regulated or licensed by the FCC, but their size and visibility make them easy targets for complaints about broadcasting.
Instead of grabbing headlines with preposterous pronouncements on the "quailty" of certain network shows - something the group hasn't the first credential to do, but recently did anyway - the national PTA ought to concentrate on indvidual community action programs designed to bring local stations more into alignment with the "public interest, convenience and necessity" that their FCC licenses require them to serve.
Because when it gets right down to it, it may not be that the local stations comprise that last line of defense aganist the big-bag TV networks. It may actually be - at least for now - just the other way around.