Viewers eat it up when local stations air trashy shows
“Ron only took two minutes to finish. Even an egg takes three.”
—Actress answering a “lawyer” on “Divorce Court”
By Tom Sowa
TV programmers once again are proving you can’t really underestimate the intelligence of American viewers. Now that soap operas have reached a status of acceptability and chicness in the entertainment industry, some new programs have moved into the vacuum, shows that shoot directly at the lowest common denominator of TV audiences.
Over the years many TV shows have gotten great mileage from simple-mindedness and dimness. But the trend in recent months – especially in competitive markets like Spokane – has been toward disposable shows, mass audience entertainment without the slightest hint of reality or serious purpose.
One indicator of the trend has been the past year’s enormous popularity of game shows. “The Price Is Right,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy!,” and assorted others in different markets around the country all found new lives as important parts of the evening entertainment schedule.
All those shows were retreads – updated versions of shows that had already been around years ago during the first heyday of the TV game shows. The big difference – the trend that indicates a programming shift toward lightweight entertainment – is that the game shows mentioned above now fill slots on the early evening schedule, the important “prime access” period between the evening news and 8 p.m.
The success of game shows in the time slots both after and before the evening news means programmers around the country have new options: Shows with a news or information approach – like “PM Magazine” and “Entertainment Tonight” – have already fallen out of favor with audiences.
The common threads among the game shows and their cousins – like “Divorce Court” – are their inexpensive production costs and their unbendable devotion to simple formulas. According to Larry Gants, program director at KHQ-TV in Spokane, “What does well (between 6:30 and 8 p.m.) are shows that let the viewer participate, or programming that the viewer doesn’t have to work at.”
KHQ has followed the formula successfully so far. Its two game shows – “Wheel of Fortune” at 6:30 and “Jeopardy!” at 7 have dominated the station ratings in this market.
KHQ’s “Wheel of Fortune” has proven so successful (here and around the country) that KXLY (Channel 4) tried last year to cut it down to size by putting its own popular evening show, “The People’s Court” opposite it at 6:30.
The last ratings only proved that Judge Wapner is no match for the “Wheel.” KHQ’s “Wheel” slapped “People’s Court” firmly across the knuckles, and Channel 4 responded by returning Judge Wapner to its original 7 p.m. time slot.
At 6:30, opposite “Wheel,” KXLY program director Darrell Blue brought in – guess what – a new game show – “The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime.”
Gants, who keeps close track of what the competition is doing at KXLY and KREM, gleefully predicts “$1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime” will “go down the toilet.” No way a new show, with an unproven idea, can compete against “Wheel of Fortune,” says Gants.
Blue feels differently. “It will have to develop its audience,” he says of the new Channel 4 game show. “We’re not out to be the top-rated show at 6:30 either. We’re not greedy. We just want our share.”
But why all the fuss? What’s at stake during those two key periods – 3 p.m. to 5 and 6:30 to 8 p.m.?
According to Blue, the local stations view the periods before and after the evening news with extreme competition.
The 3-5 p.m. “fringe access” time and the later “prime access” period offer two major scheduling blocks when the local stations can select their own programs.
Being freed from carrying shows delivered by the networks, the local stations are allowed to keep nearly all the advertising they sell during those parts of the day.
With overall TV viewership in this market increasing yearly – especially in the prime access period – local stations want to draw the highest ratings possible in their afternoon and early evening programs.
“I wouldn’t call it lowbrow programming,” adds Blue. “These are programs that are easy to watch, that don’t require an enormous commitment (by the viewer).”
Naturally, with game shows proving popular with early evening viewers, the television production companies and syndicates that give stations programs to choose from are pumping out tons of imitations and look-alikes.
“The trouble is, there’s a lot of variety in the kinds of shows being made,” says Meg Antonius, KREM-TV’s program director. “But there’s not much quality there.”
Gants, along with Blue and Antonius, will attend the yearly TV station program director convention this coming weekend in New Orleans. He’s already been forewarned, he adds, that there’ll be a number of clones of the successful game shows being shown by would-be sellers and syndicators.
The shows being considered by programmers around the country have names like “Banco,” “Bingo,” “The Frame Game,” “Rock ’n’ Roll Evening,” “Love Me, Love Me Not” and “Electronic Tabloid.” The shows have the basic ingredients – either a game show for a specific taste, such as bowling with “The Frame Game” – or else something with a touch of titillation, as with “Electronic Tabloid.”
“Many of the shows being produced have that added touch of slightly lurid, racy situations,” says Antonius. “Electronic Tabloid” is a TV version of a gossip tabloid; “Love Me, Love Me Not” is supposed to be a “game show with men pursuing women and women pursuing men, for cash and prizes,” says Antonius.
“The New Newlywed Game,” which KREM carries at 7:30 in this market, is considered the prime example of this genre, a game show that looks like a game show but really works on a lower level of taste.
The format of “The New Newlywed Game” has husbands and wives being asked a series of questions about how their spouses would react in a hypothetical situation. Despite the pretense of a contest, no one disputes that show’s appeal is based on the embarrassing questions about sex lives, private pleasures and their anatomies.
In the last Arbitron survey of Spokane area viewing habits, “The New Newlywed Game” earned a surprisingly high 18 rating, tying it for first at that time with KHQ’s “PM Magazine.” In the important age group of adults between 18 and 34, however, “The New Newlywed Game” did nearly twice as well as “PM Magazine,” says KREM’s Antonius.
That same audience interest in the nitty-gritty might also help “Divorce Court,” a half-hour program that KREM stuck in its 3 p.m. slot.
Another remake of a onetime popular TV “confrontation drama,” “Divorce Court” is supposed to be a series of “true-to-life” courtroom encounters between hostile, embittered husbands and waves and lawyers.
Certainly, few people believe the cases on “Divorce Court” are based on actual events, unlike the true courtroom scraps portrayed on “People’s Court.”
Yet, the show has proved popular in other markets of the country, which is why Antonius and others at the station chose to throw it onto KREM’s afternoon schedule.
“It’s also a good show to lead out from soap operas. In a way,” she adds, “the show is part soap opera with the trappings of a courtroom situation.”
No doubt part of the show’s appeal is the slimy and slightly lurid mention of sex, drugs and human perversity in the fictionalized episodes, acted out by unknown actors all given to wide-eyed looks of shock or glares of anger.
The show also has a “campy humor,” says Antonius. Some of the actors’ lines are so outrageously bad and offensive, the viewer is either titillated or amused, and probably both, she says.
A few viewers have called the station to complain about “Divorce Court,” admits Antonius. Some object to its subject matter, some dislike the show being shown at a time when school-age children may be watching without adult supervision.
But the complaints aren’t numerous enough to change KREM’s plan to go with the program. “We’ve had people saying: ‘It’s a terrible show,’” Antonius says. “But they watched it three days in a row before calling us.”
Thursday, January 16, 1986