How ’70s network TV can help you understand Election 2020

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If you’re looking for the best guide to how the presidential race is shaping up — and how it may all end — you might want to open up a playbook popular in the world of 1970s network television.

Polls right now can seem confusing: Joe Biden is substantially ahead of Donald Trump, but generates less enthusiasm. Trump, meanwhile, pulls out his greatest hits from the 2016 campaign (law and order, immigration, racial division) but doesn’t seem to gain any traction.

None of that would surprise Paul Klein, a programming executive at NBC in the early 1970s. Klein operated in a media world much different than the one we have today. Now, viewers have endless choices flooding our homes via broadcasting, cable and the internet. But in the early ’70s, the choices were three: CBS, NBC and ABC. And, really, the choice was two — much like our presidential contests. ABC back then was a habitual also-ran, like a Green Party or Libertarian candidate on the ballot today. The pressure on Paul Klein was enormous but simple: Beat CBS.

Research showed him that, by the 1960s, television had become a habit. It didn’t matter what show was on — people were going to watch TV anyway. It dawned on Klein that he didn’t have to create great television to win a particular prime-time slot; he just had to create a show that wasn’t as bad as whatever CBS aired against him. The trick, he said, was not pleasing the greatest number of viewers, but offending the fewest.

He called this epiphany “Least Objectionable Programming,” or LOP.

That — and I don’t mean this to sound as bad as it is going to —  is Joe Biden. Democratic primary voters, desperate to defeat Trump, eventually flocked to a candidate no one really loved but, also, no one really hated.

Biden is the political equivalent of ’70s broadcast television: Like “Mannix” or “The Waltons,” he delivers on expectations with as few surprises as possible. He’s dependable.

The former vice president’s numbers climb, even as he stays safely at home, because voters aren’t comparing him to some theoretically perfect candidate; they’re judging him versus the show on the other channel — Donald Trump.

Paul Klein developed another TV theory, one that fits the current president. Adapted from his mentor, media guru Marshall McLuhan, Klein called it “The Dinosaur Effect.”

McLuhan noted that dinosaurs bulked up to their largest size right before they toppled over and became extinct. Companies, he said, operate the same way. Klein applied that to his gigantic rival, CBS. As that network’s profits swelled on mammoth ratings, executives there would be reluctant to innovate. Even if audience tastes began to change, they would keep doing what brought them success in the first place — right up until the very moment they toppled over.

Think of Trump — and I don’t mean this to sound as bad it’s going to, either — as that dinosaur: If he were a network executive, he’d be the guy who pulled off a miracle, beating the competition when everyone counted him out. He sits atop the food chain, unmotivated to change what’s worked for him. As his ratings drop, he doubles-down on tried-and-true programming formulas that carried him to victory.

It took some time, but eventually Paul Klein was proven right. In the 1980s, long after he left the network world, many CBS shows had worn out their welcome and NBC rushed to the top with programs like “Hill Street Blues” and “Taxi.”

Klein’s theories are now considered obsolete. In the current media cacophony, you need quality and buzz to attract viewers, not just something that fills the screen in between commercials. And TV executives face enormous pressure to innovate in order to survive.

But the presidential race? It still resembles the world of 1970s television. Voters today, like viewers back then, are really just given two ways to go.

We have five months before election day — a long time in politics — but, right now, it looks like the Least Objectionable Program could very well topple a certain dinosaur.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags 2020 election 2020 Trump campaign Biden campaign Donald Trump Joe Biden Least objectionable program Marshall McLuhan Paul Klein Television

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