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Network TV Adjusts Its Leash

by Ann Cefola

In the New York metropolitan area, some people claim only to watch the culture-laden PBS. For those of you who are afraid to go slumming over network TV, here's a prime-time update.

Bow-wow or buy now?

In case you haven't noticed, animals rule TV. You probably know that "Dogs Love Trucks," according to Toyota. In the car manufacturer's ads, dogs hijack a man's sports utility vehicle late at night. Before carrying on their joy ride, the gleeful pooches dump the driver in the middle of the road. Here's more:

A dog who gets blamed for wrecking a kitchen uses a Polaroid camera to catch the real culprit, the family cat, in action

A parrot named Fred asks a beautiful woman for a blind date over his Omnipoint cell phone

A chihuahua leads a revolution in Taco Bell's ad for its new "Gorditas" product

A turtle crossing the road -- wide-angle, closeup--begins the latest Buick ad.
What's going on? Simply, humans no longer have credibility. We've gone through Southern spokespeople who evoke down-home goodness and sincerity. Who can forget the toothless little girl who helped her mama prepare Shake n' Bake ("An' ah helped"). Next. We've had crotchety New Englanders, such as the Pepperidge Farm man, who speak the plain truth. Next. We've even had West Coast types who, by the nature of their sleek and muscled bodies, suggest vibrant health and rewarding lifestyles.

No one can beat the sincerity of Lassie. Let's face it, we love our animals. We invest them with supernatural powers and human characteristics. My own cat has chosen the family car over the past decade. We write our choices on two paper plates, fill them with food and let the cat decide. And his track record was been great--we adore our Trooper (cats love trucks TOO).

I am influenced by these animals. Take for instance, the call to revolution by the Taco Bell chihuahua.

Known as Dinky, the dog in real life is named Gidget. Her nervous and watery eyes are asking us, a nation of burger-lovers, to try Gorditas. Resilient and tiny, she plans to topple those fast-food aristocrats, the Burger King and the Golden Arches. You have to love this high-strung underdog. Who would have guessed a socialist canine could sell tacos?

That chick has an incredible transmission

Advertising is what feeds TV, so let's look at another, albeit scarey, trend. To attract cash-laden baby-boomers, Cadillac came up with Catera, a smaller, sportier luxury car. After all, many of us associate Cadillacs with big, slow-moving boats our older relatives once drove. To combat this stereotype, Cadillac has personified its car in Chicago Hope (NBC).

What do I mean? A new character, Dr. Lisa Catera, or "Lease a Catera" as one fan-zine quips, made her debut last season along with the ads. One episode, she even worked in the car's tag line, "Sometimes when you can't zig, you gotta zag." Like the car, she is petite, spunky, intelligent. Two doctors in particular are hot for her. They want her. Watching the line between drama and sales disappear, I have to ask: How many cylinders does this woman have?

Lisa Catera vs. "Lease a Catera"


Joey read it, so why bother?

Our last trend should speak to those of you guilty over not watching PBS. We all know we should be reading instead of watching TV. I'll admit, the three volumes of Proust I was so thrilled to find at New York's Strand bookstore are gathering dust on my desk.

TV's writers are now having sit-com characters do the reading so you don't have to. Starlets discussing books--can you imagine? Why aren't they home watching TV? In a Friends episode (NBC), Joey weeps to find that Beth dies at the end of Little Women. In ER (NBC), a nurse quotes Arthur Miller to Dr. Mark Green, who is experiencing his own "Death of a Doctor" decline. These quotes give sit-com writers the chance to recycle undergraduate literature studies ("Hey, I may be doing this for money, but I know my Shakespeare," etc.).


Mutant message from another channel

Look for bizarre new phenomena, such as cross-show jumping, where Ally McBeal shows up on The Practice (ABC). Dream and fantasy sequences, also used on Ally McBeal (Fox), including amusing cut-aways to 1940s films, are now popular, thanks to the ingenious fun of Dream On (originated on HBO, now seen on Comedy Central). Generally they provide zany relief from whatever angst the character is experiencing.

When you see unusual episodes involving musical numbers and film-noir tributes, the program may be in its death throes. Chicago Hope had both this year at a time when its plot seemed to be searching for direction. Think of these episodes as CPR and say a prayer.


Get your pith helmet ready

So, what should you do to prepare for the upcoming season? First, if you watch TV, look at it like Margaret Mead visiting Samoa. What are the prime time natives up to? Do the females really ingest cheesecake-flavored gelatin? How about that growing canine population? Second, know that network TV is rapidly losing market share to cable. If you're a writer, it's time to pack up and head to Hollywood with your fresh ideas. If you're a viewer, exercise intelligent use of that remote or...consider Proust, so lonely on the shelf.

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