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Burying the hatchet, TV-style

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?

That seemed to be the plea of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and ABC in taking the statesmanlike step of amending their exclusive broadcast deal to allow CBS, NBC and Fox Broadcasting back into the broadcast rotation on the Prime Time Emmy Awards.

Granted, ATAS probably screwed up by not making that deal in the first place, but that still provided insufficient cause for the other networks to carry on as they did. Heck, CBS just televised the People’s Choice Awards and was shut out during the ceremony, but you didn’t see them go out and start boycotting the people.

Not that the Academy’s noble gesture will end the long tradition of television feuding. Far from it. Like the Commonwealth of Independent States or the Middle East, one can hardly stamp a fire out in TV before a new melee breaks out on another front.

Feuding, by this description, surpasses the usual good-natured, we’ll-counterprogram-your-movie-with-our-miniseries jockeying that’s standard operating procedure in the business. Qualifying as a true Hatfield-McCoy situation entails the following: actual malice, an inordinate amount of bickering, the odd lawsuit and even the occasional dirty trick or character assassination.

The classic example by this standard would have to be the battle waged between “The Disney Afternoon” and Fox Children’s Network when the latter was introduced, as both sought to lock up the 3-5 p.m. block on Fox affiliates.

That tussle, which led to dueling lawsuits, was settled only after Disney’s Michael Eisner and his former colleague, then-Fox chairman Barry Diller, intervened. Both companies have subsequently flourished in the daypart, the level of discourse receding to more conventional volleys of puffed-up press releases with each weekly Nielsen report. Several situations could prove just as messy but remain in the formative stage. Example: CBS vs. Fox Broadcasting Co. The latter’s acquisition of broadcast rights to the National Football League, and its subsequent courtship of other networks’ affiliates to televise the games , has Eye web officials seeing red.

Then there’s Paramount vs. Warner Bros., which has already become nasty but promises to get nastier before improving.

Much has been made of their competing plans to launch a “fifth network,” resulting in an inevitable battle for shelf space on independent stations. Largely ignored, however, is the fact that the two are also sniping at each other as Warner Bros. prepares to enter the syndication market with “Entertainment News Television,” or “ENT,” a direct competitor to Paramount’s long-established franchise “Entertainment Tonight.”

THE HOSTILITY ARROW POINTS in various directions when it comes to syndicated magazines such as “Hard Copy,””Inside Edition” and “A Current Affair”– those bastions of commerce that preserve the right of criminals to be handsomely paid for their stories, then condemned for their crimes.

Several of the altercations have been comical, at least from a third-party vantage point. During the height of the Rob Lowe controversy, for example, “A Current Affair” sent a Lowe impersonator scurrying past an “ET” crew, which filmed the impostor (he revealed a tasteful “Current Affair” T-shirt) and nearly aired the bogus footage. In a more serious gaffe, “Current Affair” accused “Hard Copy” of pirating its video off a satellite feed.

Virtually everyone ends up appearing silly in these exchanges, and oftentimes third parties — particularly station managers in fly-over markets — end up caught in the middle.

Yet even with all the absurdity associated with feuds, the net effect can be more serious. CBS and Fox’s tug-of-war, for example, threatens to destabilize network-affiliate ties, something Fox may be short-sighted to encourage. Its own hold on football, after all, extends through 1997, at which time Fox could be outbid and suddenly find its own station roster under siege.

Admittedly, those are natural risks associated with playing in the big leagues, but they don’t have to include the sort of counterproductive tactics that go into waging these pseudo-wars.

So what can the television industry say in response to Rodney King’s oft-quoted and parodied question? The best reply anyone seems to be able to muster is, “Yes, occasionally, but probably not for very long.”

SMELL-A-VISION: Let’s face it, Fox was asking for trouble when it dreamed up “Fox-O-Rama,” an “interactive” May sweeps promotion that will include, among other things, the use of scratch-and-sniff cards.

Any cheap shots about the aroma of certain programs will be left to others. Still, as one of those who sat through John Waters’ “Polyester” and dutifully scratched and sniffed every time the number blinked, I can testify that the smells on those cards can be pleasant or not very pleasant. With that in mind, Fox-O-Philes should heed the following advice: Unless you want to take a big whiff of Al Bundy’s socks, wait and see what’s on screen before you actually inhale.

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