EW offers advice for networks to turn around their programming and win back viewers

To understand where network television is in its history right now, think of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox as the Beatles. They’re the Fab Four of broadcasting (and yes, Fox is Ringo); they’re the ones who believe that on any given night, the entire country will unite to consume their product, just as the Beatles once united the rock audience in a monolithic show of commercial strength no other group had ever approached. The difference, of course, is that the Beatles broke up when they realized their center would not hold — that their individual interests were at odds with each other. They quit before they became irrelevant or began appealing to an ever-smaller segment of the mass audience.

Now think of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox as the Beatles if they’d never broken up: past their prime, exhausted of fresh ideas; backbiting, paranoid, pointlessly stubborn and proud. Meanwhile, all around them, upstarts are challenging their dominance. Had the Beatles persisted together, they’d have been confronted for relevance by punk, disco, and rap, just as the Big Four of broadcasting are now seeing their audience base whittled away by would-be networks UPN and The WB, cable, syndication, and, to a lesser extent, the Internet.

As this year in television comes to the end of its own long, winding road, we look at the networks with no small amount of frustration and annoyance. Don’t they get it? Don’t they see how fed up so many of us are with their meet-the-new-shows-same-as-the-old-shows? Their incessant, abrupt schedule changes? Their hyped-up sweeps (non-) ”events,” which are invariably followed by so many reruns, it makes watching guppies in a fish tank seem entertaining? When we posted a question on EW Online asking readers to tell us their TV gripes, most comments concerned time-period switches and quick cancellations. Hey, NBC, what do you think when a reader moans, ”Where is 3rd Rock From the Sun? Once I find it, will it be moving again?”

During the first two months of the new fall season, roughly 63 million viewers were watching ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, and The WB nightly; that’s nearly 2 million fewer than were doing so a year ago. Having interviewed some of television’s most prominent executives — network presidents, producers, advertising insiders — we offer a few crucial baby steps the industry must take to keep from becoming as superfluous as a vinyl copy of a George Harrison solo album (we’re thinking All Things Must Pass).

Stop Being Slaves to Demographics

The Holy Grail of network-programming strategy was handed down by the ad industry that pays the nets’ bills: Thou shalt court citizens between the ages of 18 and 49, and check their pockets for discretionary moola. Former ABC Entertainment chairman Ted Harbert, now an executive producer in the TV division of DreamWorks, says flatly: ”All roads lead back to Madison Avenue. As long as they keep saying this is the audience we need, they are the decision makers. What this leads to,” he adds, ”is networks competing for the exact same audience, [which results in] a certain sameness in the programs being scheduled.”