Changing channels

TO USE A VERY OLD CLICHE, it’s been the best and worst of times for network television lately.

The best in terms of television’s ability to create big events, with a capacity that surpasses any other means of distribution. NBC scored enormous ratings for its recent Super Bowl telecast, followed by ABC’s staggering numbers last week for Oprah Winfrey’s exclusive interview with Michael Jackson.

Then, on Sunday, CBS reinforced the status of the big-event miniseries with the whopping premiere numbers for “Queen,” proving there’s room for historical epics after such notable and noble failures as last year’s ABC minis “Son of the Morning Star” and “Separate but Equal.”

Imagine — a 30-plus share, and Michael Jackson wasn’t even involved.

On the flip side, TV executives appear to be under siege from bottom-line-driven management in a recession-plagued broadcasting economy, and the desperation to achieve results is starting to show. The most damning indictment arose recently due to NBC’s staging of news for a segment of “Dateline NBC,” followed by the network’s embarrassing on-air mea culpa, which has pundits wondering aloud whether heads will have to roll to restore faith in the division.

Even the Jackson-Oprah interview, while lacking fireworks, was hardly a high point in terms of network programming; rather, the strangely compelling 90 -minute special had all the allure of a traffic accident. While millions watched and chatted around the water cooler the next day — the ultimate shared-experience quality of a major TV event — it was hard to escape the sense that America was craning its collective neck to get a better view of a freak show.

Clearly, there’s a massive audience out there that will turn up for the right program. The problem is that they seem more interested in being titillated than entertained, putting networks in the position of saying they’re simply giving the people what they want when they plumb the depths of programming.

NO ONE SEEMS CERTAIN, however, what will have that sort of appeal, how often programs can be billed as “events” before the law of diminishing returns sets in. And, perhaps most important, there remain questions about where the parameters of taste extend in terms of attracting the public without repelling them.

Those questions have left programmers stumbling to find their way, pushed and pulled by an audience that’s consistent only in its fickleness. Viewers line up for lurid material on the tabloid TV magazines, devour exclusive interviews with serial killers and high-profile rape victims on “20/20” and “PrimeTime Live,” watch three different movies about the Amy Fisher case, and tune in briefly to the fine drama “Civil Wars” only at the prospect of seeing star Mariel Hemingway in the buff.

Still, viewers also react decisively when they feel a program has crossed some invisible line of propriety, and seemingly sure-fire concepts — such as NBC’s laudable Mike Tyson documentary last week — have received a lukewarm reception from Nielsen families. Just when TV columns lament the movie “Network” as reality and wonder when Geraldo Rivera’s next special on satanism will turn up, people surprise you and vote thumbs-down.

From that perspective, “Queen” should be welcomed as an encouraging sign. Even the two hit miniseries of November, “Sinatra” and “The Jacksons: An American Dream,” had tabloid elements in their tell-some revelations about two elusive personalities.

QUEEN,’ ON THE OTHER HAND, for all its soapy elements, emerges as the big, brassy entertainment like “Roots” or “The Thorn Birds” that once could be counted on to attract masses of viewers. That’s good news for all those other event miniseries in the works — like “Scarlett” and the sequel to “Lonesome Dove”– particularly if “Queen” follows the pattern of successful miniseries and builds on subsequent nights.

Those who’ve lamented the trend toward true-crime tales dominating the longform genre can also take heart in “Queen’s” success, proving there’s room for an occasional alternative to stories about teen-agers shooting their lover’s spouse — whether it’s “Queen” or “Sarah, Plain and Tall.”

Despite the recent effectiveness of big network events, however, there’s a cautionary note here that recent events have produced only momentary blips in network ratings, with scant apparent benefit accrued by the networks’ mainstays, ongoing series.

Many viewers seem to have developed an in-and-out habit with network TV, dropping by briefly, then going away again until the next can’t-miss program. From sports to miniseries, big events (which often carry equally large price tags) have demonstrated scant value as platforms to bring viewers back to the networks in a consistent way.

In short, the networks can’t survive on events alone, and there aren’t that many Michael Jacksons out there. Like that interview with the King of Pop, when itcomes to network TV these days, only the questions are obvious, and the answers are never simple.

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