Call it 'info-tainment' or 'docu-schlock,' this is popular TV
Just call it dessert. It follows the evening news like pudding after a TV dinner: A young, fresh-faced couple walks the living-room audience through the latest local fads, meets people with oddball hobbies, joins wacky local contests, and chats with local celebrities.
And they keep the conversation as light as whipped cream and Jell-O for an audience already sated with the day's newscast.
TV executives call it ''reality programming,'' like the news. But it isn't exactly news. Some call it ''info-tainment,'' meaning information that is entertaining. Others call it ''docu-schlock.''
Whatever one calls it, shows like this have swept the airwaves. By now, the local channels nearly everywhere in the country carry at least one soft-feature, magazine-style TV show.
It was all Bill Hillier's idea.
He conceived it as clever way out of a jam, but it has proved to be a versatile creature - so far - in all kinds of television markets and situations.
It started in San Francisco in 1976. Mr. Hillier, a Harvard-educated former documentary producer with a doctorate from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, was programming director for KPIX, the local CBS station. The station was concerned about its ratings in the half-hour slot following the national news.
In TV-programming jargon, this slot is ''prime-time access.'' The Federal Communications Commission ruled in the early '70s that the networks must leave this half-hour of prime time free for local programs.
A little ironically, local stations had promptly filled their ''prime-time access'' with syndicated game shows like ''Family Feud'' and ''The Newlywed Game.'' KPIX was no exception, and it led the local ratings for the 7:30-to-8 p.m. time slot.
But it was slipping. Mr. Hillier sensed people were getting tired of game shows. And game shows were getting more expensive to buy, putting pressure on the station's budget just as ratings were weakening.
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