The good news is that the writers strike has ended. The bad news is that, as a result, the new fall TV season won't be delayed after all. Come Sept. 28, we'll have to face the big dumb thing that deposits itself on the national doorstep every autumn.
The networks are ready now with a blitz of ditzy promos designed to get us in the mood and make us think there really is something to look forward to.
Contemplating the new season is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it, and for years, Los Angeles handicapper Herb Jacobs, of Telcom Associates, has been an astute, reliable and grimly realistic swami. Of 23 new shows to be introduced by the networks, Jacobs says in his new report on the prime-time race, only five stand much chance of success.
He thinks CBS will have winners in "The Vintage Years," a "Dallas" clone; "Shannon," a cop show starring Kevin "Kojak" Dobson; and "Jessica Novak," about a female Lou Grant who works in TV news. Jacobs sees ABC and NBC as harboring only one new hit apiece: ABC's being "Fall Guys," with Lee Majors as a bounty-hunting stuntman, and NBC's "Father Murphy," an apple cheeked spinoff from "Little House on the Prairie."
Although Jacobs is technically predicting only the first 13 weeks of the season, he suggests that next year's final tallies will be just like last May's, with CBS in first place, ABC second and NBC a tattered third. "NBC's prospects for gains in 1981-82 are not at all bright," Jacobs writes. "NBC will not be able to close the gap between itself and the other networks."
Might the replacement of Fred Silverman with Grant Tinker at the tippy-top of NBC alter the competitive situation for the start of the season? From his vantage point on The Coast, Jacobs says no, it won't. You could ask me about the next year and a half and I'd say that wouldn't alter it," says Jacobs. "You can't make shows that easy. It's a long process. Tinker will have to live with what Silverman has left him."
Tinker has said he won't make any changes in the fall schedule that Silverman locked into place last spring. "I wouldn't touch that schedule with a ten-foot pole either," concurs Jacobs. "Any failures he's going to have, he can blame them on Silverman. Tinker can't possibly have an immediate effect on NBC's ratings."
He does think Tinker is a good choice to pull NBC out of the swamps, however. "I think it's a great selection -- the best NBC has made in ten years, as a matter of fact. Tinker's a competent man, and no producer can say to him, 'What the hell do you know about making shows?''' because Tinker has had eyars of experience at that as the head of MTM Enterprises.
NBC has booked new shows with old stars -- James Garner, James Arness, Tony Randall and Rock Hudson. Isn't that enough to guarantee success? "I'm sure it's enough to guarantee failure," huffs Jacobs. He says the stars and their vehicles are weak. In his forecast Jacobs writes that "Love, Sidney" will prove to be "another flop for Randall to add to his growing collection."
And as for Garner trying mouth-to-mouth on Maverick, whom he played at ABC two rather lengthy decades ago, Jacobs writes, "Better to live with dreams than to try and recreate them. Bret Maverick won't ride again."
Jacobs also predicts doom for NBC's comedy "Gabe and Guich" -- recently renamed "Lewis and Clark" -- because, he says, the show's star, Gabe ("Kotter") Kaplan is "the most unfunny man in all of television. I don't know where he gets his moxie from. Maybe from being bad and not knowing it." A favorite of TV critics when screened in Los Angeles, ABC's "Best of the West," will die, Jacobs says, because viewers will weary of its spoff of Westerns just as they tried of "When Things Were Rotten," the Mel Brooks spoff of Robin Hood, in 1975.
Success in television isn't just a matter of being good; being good is often no defense. Jacobs doesn't judge programs only on their merits but on how well they've been scheduled for maximum audience flow from one show into another. For example, he thinks the CBS decision to open Wednesday night's prime time with a silly fantasy comedy, "Mr. Merlin," about a medieval magician who shows up in a modern day San Francisco garage, will kill the returning adult comedy that follows it, "WKRP in Cincinnati," because only kiddies will suffer through "Merlin," and not many of those.
"Dallas" ratings will slip by 10 share points this year, Jacobs thinks, but that won't be enough to knock it out of TV's No. 1 spot. However, Jacobs also says "Dallas" will turn out to be a calamity in syndication, which is where producers usually earn the big cash. Serials traditionally do not do well in syndicated reruns; so why does "Dallas producer Lee Rich keep trying to create new ones, like this year's "King's Crossing" for ABC?
"Maybe Lee Rich doesn't know what he's doing," says Jacobs instructively. "Don't ever think that because a guy is a huge success, he knows this business. These producers know how to make, but what to make, they don't know."
In programming this season, the only thing that might pass for a trend is the return of the crime show, says Jacobs -- things like "Today's FBI" on ABC and "Chicago Story" on NBC. As far as innovation and bold strokes are concerned, forget it, willya? There's about as much reason to get excited about the new fall TV season as there is to look forward to another Medfly invasion.
Does even Jacobs get much of a bang any more out of this annual futility footrace? "Yeah, I'm still excited," he says. "I still love what I do. The excitement is going down, but not that much."
It is suggested to Jacobs that the network heyday is well past its twilight, that the networks' share of the total viewing audience is steadily eroding, and that the only cause for much hope in TV lies in cable, pay calbe and the other much ballyhooed gadgetry. He rejects this arguments as gruffly and emphatically as he dispatches Gabe and Guich to the graveyard.
"It people couldn't get the three networks on those cable systems, they wouldn't be in business," Jacobs says. "Eventually, the network share will fall to 80 percent, and the other 20 percent will be 50 other guys trying to attract attention. There'll be specialized channels for everything you can possibly think of, but the networks will still dominate.
"I for one am waiting with bated breath for one of these other forms to step forward and show me something that can compete with the networks. I haven't seen anything coming out of any form. The networks each spend $1 billion a year to furnish people with programming. You know how much all the other guys put together spend? Maybe $50 million!
"So, what is everybody hollering about?"