Ten years ago, the networks didn’t need David Lynch. Not only did they not need him — they wouldn’t have wanted him. They had Three’s Company, and That’s Incredible, and CHiPs, and a lineup of shows that attracted 9 out of 10 viewers without being innovative, or adventurous, or good. With a stranglehold on the viewing habits of the American public, the networks would have had little use for a guy whose resume consisted of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.
Now, TV needs Lynch badly, and that has less to do with his popularity than with network TV’s shrinking audience. The 1980s saw the end of network domination as pay cable, basic cable, VCRs, and independent stations led an assault on CBS, NBC, and ABC. As a result, the Big Three aren’t what they used to to:
* In 1979, 91 percent of TV viewers during prime-time were tuned to a network. By last year, the number had dropped to 67 percent.
* 57 percent of U.S. households have cable TV (a percentage that has more than tripled since 1979).
* Two out of three homes have VCRs (up from 20 percent in 1985).
* Nearly 30 percent of American TV viewers now subscribe to a pay-cable service.
* Basic cable channels are taking their own bite out of the networks. On a recent Wednesday night, The China Lake Murders, a TV movie on the USA Network, had a larger share of the audience than CBS’ heavily promoted new series Grand Slam.
* The Fox network has become a legitimate challenger, with demographics that are especially appealing to advertisers, a potential top 10 series in The Simpsons, and plans to expand to five nights of programming a week by next fall. On Sunday nights, a number of Fox series frequently draw more viewers than one, two, or sometimes all three networks.
The numbers are bad enough, but the feelings behind them have to worry network executives even more. In a 1988 Roper Poll, viewers were asked to compare cable TV and regular TV. The results must have blown an icy wind through the corridors of Capital Cities/ABC, General Electric (NBC), and CBS: Viewers said they turned to cable TV for better entertainment programs, greater program variety, and — the coup de grace — better-quality programs overall.
The networks responded to changes in the television business — actually, they ran and hid — with a lineup of new series last fall that failed to yield a single big hit, a first in recent network history. ABC put its money on a group of comedies that made people frown, NBC installed a Friday-night action lineup that made people yawn, and CBS tried for a young, fresh look with weary, not-so-young stars; it has since dumped six of its nine new shows and the programming chief who approved them.
If current patterns hold, none of the network programming chiefs will be smiling at the end of the season: NBC, though still in first place, will finish with ratings among the worst in its history, and CBS will probably wind up with the lowest overall ratings for any network since 1954. ABC, widely credited with prime-time’s most adventurous schedule, may stay even with its 1988-89 ratings or even increase its audience slightly.
That’s not to say big audiences show up at the first scent of innovation. Some of TV’s most interesting ideas are now trivia questions — remember that late-’80s cult item the dramedy? — and shows that cause critics to use such terms as ”lowest common denominator” and ”vast wasteland” can become huge hits in a matter of weeks. (Nothing personal, America’s Funniest Home Videos.)
But ABC’s gamble on Twin Peaks represents more than an attempt to lure disaffected viewers by replacing the schlock of the old with the shock of the new. It could foretell a decade in which network television programmers will have to face many more excursions into the unknown. For TV viewers, that can only be taken as good news.