‘Turning Point’ and the high road less traveled

“IT’S LIKE A MOVIE … but it’s real.”

So goes the on-air promo pitch for ABC’s “Turning Point,” the network’s fourth news hour — which, beginning with its regular-series premiere tonight, sets up the first week-in, week-out competition between two newsmagazines (the incumbent being CBS’ “48 Hours”).

That scenario provides cause for concern on various fronts, breaking down on the Excedrin-scale as follows: producers of hour drama series, watching more time gobbled up by news; broadcast news purists, who fear such competition will inevitably drag content down to the tawdriest common denominator; and network entertainment divisions in general, whose clout seemingly erodes with each hour ceded to news.

“Turning Point’s” ad line alone raises questions about plumbing the news depths, especially since other Johnny-come-lately newsmagazines haven’t been above occasional theatrics (witness “Day One’s” pieces about Jeffrey Dahmer or an AIDS-infected womanizer) to heighten their sense of drama.

In addition, barring blockbuster material such as CBS’ Tonya Harding interview, the audience for news within a given hour would seem to be finite — creating, as NBC VP of scheduling & planning Preston Beckman points out, pressure to be more sensational.

“When these shows go soft, the ratings go south,” Beckman said.

Some evidence of that was apparent when “Turning Point” aired Feb. 2, splitting the available news audience with “48 Hours” and resulting in a big rating for the lone network entertainment program available, “Law & Order.”

For that reason, producers and studios lamenting the proliferation of news must approach the business differently — as, indeed, many already have by looking to create fifth and/or ad-hoc networks.

In fact, having two newsmagazines at 10 p.m. — with the threat of such a configuration eventually on additional nights — also opens the door for independents to counterprogram with dramas, assuming they’re willing to either drop or relocate their 10 o’clock newscasts.

How would Fox Broadcasting stations do, for example, with a syndicated soap scheduled at 10 p.m. Wednesdays opposite “Law & Order” and two network news hours — a natural strategy to hang onto the audience the weblet provides as a lead-in with “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place.”

The final issue, erosion of power at the West Coast entertainment divisions, remains unclear. Officials like CBS’ Jeff Sagansky and ABC’s Ted Harbert have basically said they’ll take a successful show from whatever source they can, and the audience has exhibited an obvious appetite for news, or at least the “infotainment” that passes as news.

Still, if the Winter Olympics proved anything, it’s that broadcasting has the potential to lure back viewers in huge numbers, sharing the medium in a communal way. While that’s difficult-bordering-on-impossible to achieve on a weekly basis , it’s a lot more likely to happen with “NYPD Blue” or “Northern Exposure” than the week’s third “exclusive” interview with Dr. Kevorkian.

PUCKER UP: CBS and producers Roseanne and Tom Arnold have obviously tried to clone “Roseanne” in crafting their new, acerbic comedy series “Tom,” which deals with the struggles of a blue-collar family and its starry-eyed patriarch.

Unfortunately, the show faces its own uphill battle in coming weeks, as ABC marshals its forces in support of “Thunder Alley,” a new series premiering tonight from producer Matt Williams — the same guy Roseanne Arnold ousted from “Roseanne” during its first season, and one of the folks she’s delighted in bad-mouthing ever since, most recently in a tell-plenty autobiography.

The last word, however, may belong to Williams, since he (and partners David McFadzean and Carmen Finestra) went on to create TV’s reigning sitcom champ, “Home Improvement,” which ABC will use to launch “Alley,” sandwiching the new sitcom between two episodes of the established hit.

On the flip side, with CBS’ “The Nanny” in its corner against “Improvement” repeats, “Tom” can use all the help it can get.

No one knows how to generate free publicity better than the Arnolds, but they haven’t brought out the big guns yet on “Tom,” thus far avoiding controversial themes that tend to attract curiosity-seeking viewers while making companies like Procter & Gamble and Bristol-Myers feel their collars tightening.

Here’s a sampling of upcoming plots, as outlined by CBS: Tonight — Tom’s wayward sister visits and is arrested for using a stolen credit card. March 16 — Tom agrees to fix up his old car for Mike, who wants to take it on a big date. March 23 — Tom and Dorothy are surprised to learn their son will be able to skip a grade.

No, no, no! If “Tom” is going to survive ABC’s competitive assault, the show needs stories that are easily promotable, generating scads of press while prompting wrestling matches with network censors and hand-wringing among the religious right and the Terry Rakoltas of the world.

Sample suggested topics: Tom’s teenage sons are arrested for “doing the Pee-wee” in an X-rated movie house (Traci Lords, Ginger Lynn guest star). Tom and his wife revisit the ’70s by tripping out on mushrooms with Tom’s counterculture dad (Dennis Hopper). Tom and a friend dress up in women’s clothes for Halloween, then the friend (guest star Harvey Fierstein) decides he wants to dress that way all the time. And (drum roll please) …

Tom kisses another man!

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