NEW YORK -- One must always be suspicious of prime-time television programs that, through the kindness of a network's corporate heart, allow viewers to comment about what they see on TV.
Such a program airs Friday night (June 27, 8-9 p.m. EDT) and demonstrates that only a No. 1 network like NBC would be so bold as to open the mikes to criticism.
Actually, there is not much risk for NBC in the program 'America Talks Back.' With help from its affiliate stations across the country, the network asked viewers to comment about television. The usual concerns were voiced, including those of too much sex and violence, too little emphasis on proper values or quality programming for children and not enough 'good news.'
More than 100 hours of interviews conducted in 25 cities were collected and forwarded for editing to NBC in New York. There, questions were selected and such dignitaries as NBC Chairman Grant Tinker, Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, NBC News President Lawrence K. Grossman and supercop Philip Michael Thomas of 'Miami Vice' were allowed to respond.
At the start, right after the splashy graphics and peppy music, Gumbel warns viewers that there are many questions that cannot be answered in a one-hour show, even one billed as 'straight talk about TV.'
Examples include: Why is there so much violence on TV? Why don't you show police as they really are? Why is there so much focus on negative news? How do you balance giving the public what it wants vs. what it needs?
These are good questions, but a few innocuous ones also slip in that seem to have no purpose except to promote NBC shows: How can Don Johnson walk around without socks? How come you wear $1,500 suits on 'Miami Vice?' Why doesn't anybody ever get killed on 'A-Team?' Was it difficult for Gumbel to switch from sports to news on the 'Today' show?
There is some merit to having news chief Grossman discuss his decision to track down and interview the terrorist who masterminded the Achille Lauro hijacking, with a promise not to reveal his location. But what about Don Johnson's socks?
Few revelations are contained in 'America Talks Back.' For example, when a viewer asks for more realistic storylines about the problems of the elderly in the NBC hit 'Golden Girls,' one of the stars, Betty White, responds:
'If we faced them absolutely realistically, I'm afraid our ratings wouldn't be very good.'
Yes, indeed, the ratings monster rears its vile head.
Even newsman Grossman refers to the evil ratings when he is asked about good news vs. bad news on network TV.
'News is the unusual,' he says. 'When planes land safely nobody reports it. When a plane crashes and lives are lost that's the definition of news. So we unfortunately are there mostly reporting tragedies.' Grossman goes on to say that nobody would watch good news anyway.
Why don't you air more original plays, like in the old days of TV?
'In truth we are a business and we've got to appeal in most cases to as much audience as we can attract,' explains chairman Tinker. 'That's what we do for a living.'
Why is there so much sex and violence on TV?
'It sells,' explains Philip Michael Thomas.
One interesting question is put to Bob Costas ofNBC Sports: Why do you quote the gambling odds for National Football League games?
'It would be naive to believe that gambling is not responsible for a large portion of the popularity of the NFL,' Costas replies.
Good question. Ridiculous answer. Is that really why people watch NFL games, Bob?
Still, there is something refreshing about seeing top network executives responding to questions from viewers, even though this program is only being aired because the time is right for a brief respite from summer reruns.
The fact that NBC executives are paying more attention to their audience is good news indeed.
Television may be taking reality a bit too far with a new half-hour pilot being developed in Los Angeles. On the heels of such reality-based shows as 'People's Court' and 'Divorce Court' comes 'The Group,' which takes us directly to the shrink's couch. The show, based on actual group therapy sessions and moderated by certified group therapist Barbara Levy, will re-enact real-life case histories. The program is being developed for taping in July and if everything goes well it could air as a weekday series in the fall of 1987.
The episode of 'Saturday Night Live' featuring Madonna as host will be rebroadcast on NBC Saturday (June 28, 11:30 p.m. EDT). Madonna is joined by musical guests Simple Minds and comedy-magic duo Penn & Teller.