It is possible, just possible, that all of network television will shortly disappear -- sucked into a black hole from which it may never reemerge. And if that happens, Michael Weisman will have only himself to blame.
Weisman is the executive producer of NBC Sports, and the recent father of an astonishing brainchild. In a stunt he says will provide "a service to the viewer and a service to the advertiser," TV screens across the nation will be blackened for one minute on Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26, so that football fans can raid the refrigerator or go to the bathroom without missing a split second of NBC's Super Sunday broadcast.
"I think everybody wins across the board," Weisman said yesterday.
The voluntary blackout is scheduled to occur in the midst of NBC's two-hour Super Bowl pregame show, which will precede the 3 1/2-hour Super Bowl game, which will itself precede a half-hour Super Bowl postgame show. During the blackout, only an NBC Sports logo and a small clock ticking off the seconds will appear on the screen. There will be music as well, Weisman said, either "dentist office music" or a classical symphony.
But what if American television viewers really like Weisman's idea? What if, as one network insider speculated yesterday, "the idea catches on, and the public starts insisting on three or four hours of black television screens? I think it's really dangerous. The public might find out how restful blacked-out television is."
NBC officials expressed little concern about that possibility. "We'll be back in 60 seconds," insisted Kevin Monaghan, a network spokesman.
Weisman, however, waxed hopeful about the future of his bold innovation. "If I can keep 20 million people from getting up during a commercial, that's not insignificant," he said. "Who knows the long-range ramifications of this? . . . Maybe this is the forerunner of advertisers demanding, 'Hey, give them an intermission in every half-hour show, or every hour show.' "
Officials at rival networks dismissed Weisman's experiment as a publicity stunt and predicted it would have little effect on the viewing or eating habits of American football fans.
"Damn, they're innovative," deadpanned Ted Shaker, an executive with CBS Sports, adding, "I've got to get off the phone before I get into trouble."
"This comes from the folks who gave you an announcerless football game, microphones in golf cups and other noble experiments that have not panned out," said Doug Richardson, a spokesman for CBS Sports. "You're dealing here with a network whose correspondents propose to one another on national television."
Richardson was referring to NBC's Thanksgiving Day broadcast of a football game between the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets, during which NBC Sports analyst Ahmad Rashad proposed marriage to Phylicia Ayers-Allen, an actress who appears on NBC's "The Cosby Show." At half time, Ayers-Allen publicly accepted.
"This week everybody was proposing to everybody else on the air as a goof," NBC's Monaghan said. "We do a very good job of being completely off the wall."
Reaction to the blackout on Madison Avenue -- where much could be gained or lost if the idea catches on -- has been distinctly mixed.
Weisman said prominent NBC advertisers have expressed enthusiasm to him about the experiment. But Richard Kostyra, senior vice president of J. Walter Thompson U.S.A., one of the country's largest ad agencies, expressed profound skepticism. "I don't see what it's going to do. If it's intended to relieve a little boredom, it might do that. In regular programming, to go to black would be disastrous. You're inviting people to go away."
Weisman conceded that his idea began as an attempt to garner publicity for NBC and its Super Bowl pregame show. Not all of the pregame show's commercial spots, which go for around $600,000 a minute, have been sold, although NBC said commercial time during the Super Bowl itself is sold out. The asking price for a one-minute spot was $1.1 million.
"I'm cognizant of doing things that appeal to the public," Weisman said. "I don't accept that because something's being done in a certain way, you have to do it that way. I love the challenge of doing something that may be precedent setting."
Dr. Frankenstein, you may recall, said more or less the same thing.