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New season lineup will leave some questions unanswered

May 07, 2003|BRIAN LOWRY

By this time next week, we'll have a pretty good picture of what the next TV season will look like -- what borderline series are renewed or canceled, and which obsessive fans will be up all hours vainly organizing Internet campaigns to "save" certain shows. Increasingly, however, the week each May when the networks unveil their fall lineups is less the end than the beginning, more a possibility of what's to come than a promise. Yes, the so-called upfront presentations starting Monday kick off a mating dance between networks and media buyers -- who will pony up more than $8 billion for ad time before the season begins -- but they by no means represent the last word on what we'll see after Labor Day.

Cynics would say that's because networks play what amounts to a high-stakes shell game -- announcing scripted shows with which advertisers are more comfortable, knowing full well they can jettison the duds faster than you can say "Joe Millionaire."

Still, that's only one factor. Another hinges on the accelerated pace of the TV business, which no longer allows for a four-month siesta between the close of one TV season and the start of the next; instead, networks feel compelled to provide a semblance of year-round original fare, with summer emerging as a breeding ground for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," "Survivor," "Fear Factor" and "American Idol."

Network executives have also grown less patient as their own tenures become more tenuous and shorter, heightening pressure to pull shows fast (witness the two-week runs of Fox's "Girls Club" and ABC's "That Was Then" last fall), with staged reality offering the lure of a quick ratings fix.

It's also clear that series development is never done, with most new programs undergoing revisions, even after being unveiled during the May upfront extravaganzas, from replacing actors (often swapping them for those who were in shows that didn't make the cut) to altering plots. Of course, given that networks order dozens of pilots, you might expect the chosen few to be gems, or at least better than "The Grubbs," which Fox canceled without ever airing.

Such practices fuel the mystery that surrounds the "upfront" ritual, for however long that lasts. In a world where the National Football League draft commands days of coverage on ESPN, you can imagine E! or FX turning the whole thing into its own reality show: " 'The 2004-05 TV 'Upfront' Presentations,' brought to you by Playtex. Playtex: Because it's what's up front that counts."

Until then, here are some key issues that won't be answered by the latest schedule-setting derby until well after the last open bar has closed:

* Is there life after "Friends"? After dining out for years on "Friends" and "Frasier" -- sitcoms introduced four regimes ago -- NBC will lose both at the end of next season, creating an urgent need to establish new comedies.

Moreover, Thursday is no longer NBC's exclusive playground, thanks to CBS' "Survivor" and "CSI," while this season's Tuesday comedy block has done a fair impersonation of the Wicked Witch of the West under water. Throw in Fox's "American Idol" as competition, and reviving that night becomes a huge rebuilding challenge.

* Can ABC become a happier place on Earth? Speaking of rebuilding, for all its enthusiasm during the fall, ABC is again limping through the spring, renewing questions about the network's ability to promote and launch new programs. On the plus side, the plastic surgery showcase "Extreme Makeover" has performed well enough, but the network is going to require more than a nip and tuck to get back into the game.

* How much reality is too much? After flooding their lineups with staged reality, the networks are pledging their love for scripted shows like a wayward spouse, with about as much sincerity. That's because any of the numerous "reality" concepts premiering this summer could return if they pop as midseason replacements, raising the specter of a quick switch from actors reading lame dialogue to wannabe actors who have modeled or dabbled in porn mouthing their own lame dialogue ... in hot tubs.

* Will the networks again harvest a home-grown crop? Last year, 27 of 35 new fall prime-time series came from a company affiliated with the network ordering it. Yet while networks generally insist they take the best shows regardless of auspices, for some reason when they look in the mirror, sibling studios are invariably the fairest supplier of them all.

So Warner Bros. Television -- which produced a whopping 33 pilots this year scattered all over the place -- bears watching. If the studio ends up largely shut out beyond its sister WB, expect rivals to insist that airborne virus known to ruin TV shows was hovering over Burbank.

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