NOT LIVE FROM New York, but on film and tape from Los Angeles, it's . . . the last TV season of the '70s. And the word from networks and stations is, essentially, don't be surprised if there are no surprises.
New York's BBDO ad agency calls it a season of "back to basics," while Dancer Fitzgerald Sample Inc. predicts without much fear of contradiction that "a dearth of bona fide hits is again likely to be the rule." And former CBS executive Mike Dann notes that once more "comedy is king," with sit-coms or adventure shows with high comedy counts the dominant form.
"Back to Basics" means the season will be less Big Eventful; the number of schedule disruptions for specials and mini-series will be down, which means the value of a high-rated series will be even greater than usual. And so will the asking prices. A 30-second spot on ABC's high-rated "Mork and Mindy" will cost advertisers $130,000, and the same spot on ABC's top-rated "Three's Company" will cost "a little more" than that, an ABC spokesman says.
When ABC televises the most blockbustery of the year's network movie premieres, that whale of a show called "Jaws," 30 seconds of air time will go for a whale of a $200,000. According to BBDO, ad rates for weekly shows in prime time will range from $45,000 to $150,000 for 30 seconds, with $67,000 the average.
It's almost mandatory at this time of year to look at the array of new season offerings and make a shrug that registers 6.7 on the Richter scale. There are good things to be said about the season already, however.One is the prsence of three new prime-time shows with black actors in the lead roles: James Earl Jones as "Paris" on CBS; and Louis Gossett Jr. in "The Lazarus Syndrome" and Robert Guillaume as "Benson" on ABC. Jones and Gossett are playing black characters who do not fall into the sterotypes of a raging George Jefferson ("The Jeffersons") or a jivey, jokey J.J. ("Good Times"). The characters played by Jones and Gossett have careers, marriages and middle-class American lives in which race is not perpetually an issue.
On the one hand, there is nothing in the new schedule to match the ambitiousness of a "Lifeline" or even a "Paper Chase." There is still "Lou Grant" but there is no new "Lou Grant." There is no new "Roots." And yet, at the other end of the arc, neither is there anything in the schedule quite so dopey as the "Animal House" imitations of last season or such giddy jigglers as "American Girls" and "Flying High." Some new shows certainly are dumb, but none appears to be really dumb.
In addition, network television is slowly becoming a game that more than a few can play. There is a better mix this year of big and small program producers in prime time, at least on ABC and CBS. NBC, the third-place network, continues to rely too heavily on material from Universal Studios. Universal will supply NBC with six hours of series programming each week, more than any other single studio supplies any single network. It's too much, and it can only help keep NBC in the gutter.
Encouragingly, too, the story of television is less and less just the story of the networks. New to local stations in 50 markets this year is Norman Lear's "The Baxters," in which an 11-minute vignette about a current or perennial social problem is to be followed by each station's own form of audience response. And many of the stations that last year ran Mobil's "Edward the King" will be airing this year's similarly imported "Edward and Mrs. Simpson," the story of the duke and duchess of Windsor.
Network TV creeps into the '80s on little cat's feet, not Tiger Paws. Innovation is not the keynote of the season; playing it by the numbers, the Nielsen numbers, is. This looks to be the Season of the Safe, but once it gets underway and the flops start falling like autumn leaves -- or maybe more like icicles -- there is still the possibility that from all the competitive frenzy in the executive suites, something exciting may actually break through.
It's a slim hope, but it's all we've got.