Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way

Why did the once-invincible troika of CBS, NBC, and ABC fall prey to takeovers in the mid-’80s? According to Ken Auletta’s painstaking corporate history, their erosion is best described in the testosterone-pumped jargon of Wall Street’s boom era: white knights and poison pills, red ink and golden parachutes, deals over meals, and barbarians at the gate. That’s fine, and Auletta, an investigative journalist (Greed and Glory on Wall Street) who pours himself into research as few others can, tells it well. It’s fun to watch bean-counting billionaire Laurence Tisch pry CBS from the iron grip of aging autocrat William Paley, or to see NBC resist becoming one more division within GE’s bottom-line universe. There’s even pleasure in observing the uneasy marriage between ABC and Capital Cities.

But these stories have no moral, and Three Blind Mice is at its most misguided when trying to provide one by painting the takeovers as the chief instruments of the networks’ downfall. As Mice reveals almost by chance, the true saboteurs of the Big Three’s profit margins were forces beyond their control — the cable and videocassette revolutions, the growth of Fox, the increased clout of affiliates. But these players make less compelling drama, so after Auletta’s energetic depiction of smash-and-grab deal making, Three Blind Mice drifts into vignettes.

Still, those corporate barons make stageworthy villains, and there Auletta’s effortful work has paid off. Three Blind Mice contains some astounding worst-nightmare episodes. Auletta shows us an NBC News consultant suggesting that Bill Cosby and Johnny Carson might enliven NBC’s election coverage. He eavesdrops on a CBS board so fusty you can hear the creaking limbs and smell the rancid cigar smoke. He marvels at GE chief Jack Welch’s suggestion that publishers be charged a fee for getting authors on the Today show. And he recounts a bizarre Cap Cities ”game” in which befuddled ABC executives had to select one item from a table of delicacies. Those who picked the cheapest — ketchup — were rewarded for their frugality by finding a Krugerrand in the bottle.

Only after the merger dust clears and the companies retrench does Auletta go astray. He touches on hot spots, but nothing in his book suggests that the takeovers affected what we see on the air, which is, after all, what networks are about.

In his introduction, Auletta explains that he intended to write about TV as an industry rather than examine the shows themselves. That’s a shame, because the fact that TV isn’t just another business is precisely what makes it so fascinating. Instead of bottle caps or snowshoes, it’s Dan Rather and Dynasty that roll off the assembly line. And on-screen, how much has really changed? Even Auletta’s vivid sketch of venerable trashmaster Aaron Spelling, who negotiates the cutting of a TV sex scene by saying, ”I’ll give you the tongue in the mouth but not the tongue on the neck,” only underscores that when it comes to prime-time entertainment, the new bosses are the same as the old bosses.

Illuminating as Three Blind Mice is, it’s finally more an accumulation of events than a complete narrative. Auletta takes readers to the brink of the & coming television season, then stops, as he must; there can be no moral to a tale that is rewritten every week in the Nielsen ratings and every quarter in profit-and-loss sheets. But with rumors rife that at least one of the networks may be resold, the informative, vivid horror stories Auletta tells in this stinging report on the state of the business are well worth remembering. B

Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way
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