- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006


By Bill Carter

Doubleday Books, $26.95, 399 pages


Because of television’s pervasive influence on American society, there seems to be a never-ending interest in finding out what is going on behind the scenes.

Most of the attention focuses on the exploits of Jennifer Aniston, Terry Hatcher and other on-air personalities. In some ways, the behind-the-scenes maneuvers can he just as interesting, especially for people eager to find out how programming decisions are made and how networks are really run.

Bill Carter’s “Desperate Networks” is a lively and gossipy look at the current state of television. Want to know how “Desperate Housewives’ and “The Apprentice’ came into being, or how NBC let Katie Couric get away? You have found the right place.

Mr. Carter, a long-time television reporter for the New York Times, mines his extensive sources and institutional memory to tell good stories. He writes evocatively, with many metaphors, and seems to have more fun than when constrained by the limits of daily journalism.

“CBS in the early 1990s was reminiscent of a ramshackle old mansion, once grand but now filled with furniture draped in sheets and covered with dust. The network still seemed to be speaking to children of the Depression, the group that made CBS the channel of choice since the earliest days of television,’ he writes.

CBS at the time was regularly crushed by NBC, which had put together a package of “must see tv’ that included “ER,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” The networks’ positions were reversed later that decade, because NBC failed to develop suitable replacements for its hits, while CBS battled back by embracing reality television through programs such as “Survivor.”

Executives at the other networks were initially reluctant to embrace these reality shows because they thought the programs were too low-brow.

ABC kept itself in the game by relying on dramas, some of which had been turned down by the other networks. Among its biggest successes was “Desperate Housewives,” which had a special appeal among female viewers.

The idea for the series came from a former comedy writer whose mother said she could understand the depression and frustration that triggered a Houston woman to drown her children. While the series never featured infanticide, it struck a chord among women who were trying to balance work and family pressures.

Alas, if NBC had had its way, “Desperate Housewives” might never have seen daylight. “NBC Entertainment as an institution passed on ‘Desperate Housewives,’ in the same way they passed on hundreds of ideas for new shows every year — a fleeting look and good-bye,” Mr. Carter writes.

It was such misjudgments that prompted NBC’s prime-time programming to fall into third place, where it still languishes. A bright spot for the network is that it has kept the lead in the early-morning, evening news and late-night time slots, though all those are less desirable to advertisers.

NBC was not alone in failing to predict future hits. ABC, CBS and NBC all passed on “American Idol,” and several programming executives treated the show’s creator dismissively. The program went on to become a huge hit for Fox, which bought it after its chairman Rupert Murdoch pushed for it at the behest of his daughter.

Mr. Carter describes the events surrounding programming decisions in an evenhanded manner without an obvious ax to grind. Though many of his long-time sources, such as NBC Chairman Robert Wright and his deputy Jeffrey Zucker, come off well, the book fully documents their failures in judgment and Mr. Zucker’s often-abrasive demeanor.

Beyond its focus on entertainment, thebook also discussesthe transitions facing the evening broadcasts in recent years. Tom Brokaw’s retirement, Peter Jennings’ death and Dan Rather’s resignation after a factually questionable broadcast about President Bush forced all the networks to change anchors.

One learns that despite the popularity of the “Today” show and Ms. Couric’s reputation as America’s sweetheart, her negative ratings among some demographic groups were higher than those of Mr. Rather.

Ultimately, NBC was unwilling to give Ms. Couric what she wanted: the anchor chair at Nightly News. CBS was eager to hire her because they wagered she could lift their ratings from third place, where they have been mired since the 1980s.

Mr. Carter weaves together these disparate events andpersonalities together in a manner that makes for interesting, fun and quick reading. It’s generally frothy fare that is the literary equivalent of chocolate bar: great tasting but after a short time you find that you are hungry again.

That said, “Desperate Networks” is the perfect book to take on vacation. You will have a great time and learn something, without doing much heavy intellectual lifting.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the book, “The Divided States of America.”

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