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October 24, 2000

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The Price Is Right If You're Under 40

       Remember when Bennett Cerf was on the panel of the last CBS What's My Line? and said, "I smell eight rats," during the last mystery guest game? That's how many rats I smell with Pearson TV's spin on this whole Price Is Right odyssey.
       Regardless of how the stench is---and it's a toxic one---the abrupt dismissal of Janice Pennington, Kathleen Bradley and Paul Alter (and let there be no mistake about what tomorrow means for these three, regardless of Pearson's spin machine) is emblematic of the cruelties of the entertainment business---particularly television.
       Alter is in his 70s and, truth be told, his name only means something in this mess to hardcore game show fans and inside-the-industry people. Pennington and Bradley, however---particularly Janice, are a different story.
       Economics and demographics have been a two-headed villain in the broadcast industry for years. My good friend Al Martella, in his mid-40s as am I, shared his realistic mantra with me two years ago: "Steve, they're not after us any more. They don't care what we watch or what we think." The television gravestones have been littered with E & D victims, some of whom will not be familiar names to younger people, sad to say:
---In 1964, Garry Moore was still winning his time slot with his much-beloved and Emmy-winning variety series. The audience, however, was predominantly over 50. Garry was told, "You're through," by CBS President Jim Aubrey.

---Red Skelton had been a mainstay for CBS for 18 seasons. His show was still number eight in the Nielsens the week he was canceled in 1970 by the network. Reason: too many kids and too many over-50s in the audience.

---In 1971, CBS axed a record 17 shows, including the number seven Mayberry R.F.D. and the number 26 Jim Nabors Hour. Why? The viewers were considered either too old or too rural.

---In 1980, after 19 years of drawing huge profits for Group W, Mike Douglas was abruptly told he was being sacked in favor of John Davidson. Why? Too many markets were skewing older (never mind Mike was still a strong news lead-in for many of those stations).

---In 1985, Roone Arledge was dumped as president of ABC Sports, the company he had made into a legend, because the division was considered an out-of-control spender and was not seriously contributing to ABC's overall bottom line.

---You think Johnny Carson's departure after three decades from NBC was strictly voluntary? Johnny was given a not-so-subtle push toward his decision to retire because The Tonight Show had begun, allegedly, to lose its appeal with younger viewers.
       I remember as early as 1984 sitting with ABC affiliate relations executive Warren Denker at lunch in Wilmington, N.C. I was a young news director and I confronted Denker about why our network had such poor noon news lead-ins. At that time, The Price Is Right had already mowed down 27 competing shows. "Why," I questioned Denker, "doesn't ABC try to offer more money and steal away The Price Is Right when its contract is up for renewal with CBS? You haven't come up with anything to compete with it." Denker virtually screamed at me: "Price Is Right is not a saleable show! Look at the demographics it does." I answered, "Look at the CBS affiliates which win their noon news because of it."
       Yet, such is the thinking in television. Today, far moreso than that conversation I had with Denker, when megaconglomerates look at bottom lines, you have no sacred cows. Sentimentality=zero. Young=dollars. The Price Is Right is not a target for advertisers selling new products or young, hip images---despite the mounds of college students who populate its live audience and play its games. Sponsors today will pay more to drop a spot in the midst of the babbling babes opposite on ABC, despite the fact that Joy Behar and Barbara Walters are well past 50. Meredith Vieira is over 40, too. However, in broadcasting and advertising, if you have a big, loud, politically correct mouth and you're over 40 (I'm sure that comment will wow certain ones on atgs), you're hip. If you wave and pat at products and don't talk and you're over 40, you aren't.
       Never mind that Janice and Kathleen still look better than a lot of 30-year-olds. Never mind that Alter has probably forgotten more about directing than a score of mid-twentyish potential replacements have ever learned. Their seniority has inflated their salaries, particularly Pennington and Alter, over three decades. Likewise is the case for Bob Barker but he's the star of the show and while one cannot say he is totally immune to the financial daggers, he'll be the last to go from this money swashbuckler.
       This is all a story of dollars and cents. Never mind the loyalty Janice has shown Barker and the show. Never mind the money she saved CBS when she did not sue after a camera knocked her off the stage and injured her. Never mind the years Alter shepherded some of CBS's daytime and nighttime game show classics as a director.
       A key in all of this is the final control Pearson gained over the show just before the season started. Most of us were not aware until that point, Pearson had not bought out the remaining interest of the Mark Goodson company. That's a keynote when Syd Vinnedge, the Pearson executive over these properties, and CBS apparently agreed to serious costcutting measures. Why? To improve the bottom line of the show at both ends. In other words, to beef up the profit margin and improve the picture for stockholders of both companies. Same as in any business today. Employee loyalty pales if you're making too much money in the company's eyes and draining the ledger sheet.
       Most viewers will never know why this is happening---unless any of these three (or any to follow---and I don't for a minute think the bloodletting stops here) goes public. The spin will be Pearson has other plans for them, plans which will never materialize. The show will pay a token tribute to Janice and Kathleen for their years of service. They'll get a verbal gold watch. They've all three been made "consultants" to the company to diffuse any suggestion they've been fired, or as a defense against an age discrimination suit. I remember what my old boss George Diab once said after our station in Wilmington was sold and George had been named a "consultant." Said George: "It didn't take but about 30 days to realize 'consultant' meant they sent me a check once a month for a year and never called me about anything."
       The irony of all of this is only one short month ago, a federal judge threw out former model Holly Hallstrom's age discrimination claims, the judge openly cited the show's employment on-air of two women older than Holly.
       What is clear to me is if Bob Barker were not so intertwined with this series in the public mind, and dispensing of his $2 million salary would not create the biggest uproar since Lawrence Welk was fired by ABC, Pearson and CBS would probably either can the show or drastically reformat it with twentyish models, MTV-style camerawork and a dude host who wears L.L. Bean shirts without ties. Network executives truly believe today if shows look more like Click or Peer Pressure, the 18-34s will tune in in droves.
       Another of my old bosses, the great David W. Richardson---who hails from Barker's hometown---once looked at how local television news so tersely terminated scores of veteran anchors and reporters during the '70s, all in the name of attracting younger audiences. Said Dave: "It's a cold business----and it's only going to get colder." With Janice Pennington, Kathleen Bradley and Paul Alter as the latest example of , we see no signs of global warming in this category.

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