BRACING FOR the late-arriving fall TV crush inspired me to go back to the end of the fin-syn era and re-examine the 1993-94 TV season — which, a mere 15 years later, feels like a lifetime ago.
In hindsight, it’s hard to believe the business whirlwind that has ensued in that geologically short span, forever altering so many careers. That season began, after all, before the networks and studios felt any impact from the elimination of the financial interest and syndication rules — the FCC guidelines that dramatically restricted the networks from owning the programs they broadcast.
The formal demise of fin-syn in 1995 spurred the eradication of most independent suppliers. It also prompted the defensive birth (and eventual wedding) of the WB and UPN networks; and studio-network marriages, including Disney-ABC and CBS-Viacom (before the latter, Hollywood-style, split up again). As for seismic shifts in content vs. 1993, the intervening years have witnessed the staggering descent of sitcom ratings; the disappearance of the three network Sunday-night movies; and the reality/alternative TV explosion ushered in by “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor.”
Back then, series lead-ins still mattered, so much so that NBC successfully rolled out its new half-hour “Frasier” behind “Seinfeld,” just as ABC was introducing “Grace Under Fire” after “Home Improvement.” Hell, NBC alone scheduled 14 sitcoms — more live-action comedies than ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are presenting this fall combined.
Networks still aggressively programmed Saturday nights, as opposed to just dumping “encore” airings there. Shingles like Aaron Spelling and Stephen J. Cannell, Carsey-Werner and Castle Rock commanded precious parcels of primetime real estate — the highest-profile component of a thriving independent production community, which also churned out dozens of made-for-TV movies.
Despite their years, Andy Griffith and Angela Lansbury — then age 67 and 68, respectively — were still considered perfectly respectable series leads. African-Americans (among them some guy named Will Smith) starred in a dozen comedies or variety shows, and so did an equal number of standup comics. Faded genres like Westerns (“Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”) and family sitcoms (ABC’s dismantled “TGIF” lineup) still had a place in primetime.
Sifting through the programs themselves, it’s equally remarkable how in various respects the more some things change, the more others stay the same.
Networks, for example, were already hellbent on balancing the costs of their primetime lineups, creating more slots for newsmagazines and relatively inexpensive series (nobody thought to call them “reality”) like “Rescue 911,” “I Witness Video” and “Unsolved Mysteries,” as well as sketch comedies such as “In Living Color.”
Surveying the major networks’ lineups, other smaller parallels leap out. For example:
- “Law & Order” was on. So were “Cops,” “America’s Most Wanted,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” “60 Minutes,” “Dateline NBC” and “Primetime.”
- Beverly Hills, “90210,” was considered an alluring zip code for a country facing economic uncertainty.
- NBC aired a sweet, low-rated drama about a high-school football coach in Texas (“Against the Grain” then, “Friday Night Lights” now).
- Pro football was a major primetime attraction, albeit on a different night and network.
- An elite cop unit sought missing persons (“Missing Persons” then, in Chicago; “Without a Trace” now, in New York).
- There was a show about Superman (“Lois & Clark” then, “Smallville” now). Oh, and Teri Hatcher was in a Sunday-night drama on ABC.
- Fox launched a show about a duo investigating the paranormal (“The X-Files”) or weird science (“Fringe”). Based on that, be on the lookout for the inevitable bigscreen revival, “Fringe: Honest, I Swear I Still Believe,” circa 2023.
ADMITTEDLY, we media types seldom bother with such backward-looking comparisons. Indeed, perspective consistently remains rare when it comes to evaluating television, which only promises to get worse. Budget-slashing cutbacks have seriously reduced the collective journalistic supply of institutional knowledge, and less-seasoned reporters — eager to spot trends and breakthroughs — are generally more susceptible to identifying “firsts” where none exist.
Yet while the distribution process and industry’s configuration has undergone wrenching and unpredictable changes, when analyzing the actual content under the microscope, not so much. Because in TV, you never have to wait long for everything old to be new again.