IT was a comedic aside in the sneak peek two weeks ago of the "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff "Private Practice": Three enlightened lady doctors, including series star Kate Walsh, sit in the lobby of their swanky L.A. practice gazing hungrily at the hairless, lean and naked torso of the bobble-headed 20-year-old receptionist as he exits the building to go surf.
Having brought the bedroom into the operating room on "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice" creator Shonda Rhimes now apparently skews the experiment: more sex, less medicine, but just as much focus on the front lines of women trying to have it all.
Network brands (or the illusion of one, anyway) never get so much attention as they do when new slates of fall shows are announced to the nation's advertisers, as the Big Four (Five, counting the CW) did last week in New York.
A network's "upfront" presentation is the equivalent of an automaker unveiling its new line of cars (substitute, say, "cop show set in post-Katrina New Orleans" for "new hybrid Honda SUV"). Either way, the goal is the same -- to create a lot of noise and suggest a singularity of vision about what the customer wants, not to mention separation from what the other guys are selling.
Beneath this is the reality that every network brand is in flux right now, triangulating against its own recent past, fitful present and uncertain future. That future is muddled, at best, amid dwindling audience share and new and emerging technologies that only make TV consumption more of an a la carte \o7 \f7experience.
Brand loyalty commands me to buy Diet Coke over Diet Pepsi when given the chance, but the same hardened fealty doesn't exactly kick in while flipping among the big-tent networks. The devoted "Lost" viewer, armed with TiVo or laptop or iPod, is arguably not apt to develop a brand affinity for ABC. Taking it one step further, is it possible that the lover of "House" doesn't even think of it as a Fox show?
Not that the networks don't still pay lip service to the notion of branding, as if a certain kind of programming is in their DNA, springing distinctly NBC or ABC shows to life.
"Comedy Night, Done Right" is what NBC dubbed its Thursday-night bloc of sitcoms this season, an old-fashioned, pre-TiVo approach of pushing a \o7prix fixe\f7 meal of shows -- "My Name Is Earl," "The Office," "Scrubs" and "30 Rock" -- on a nation of nibblers.
"Comedy Night, Done Right" is downscaled revisionism from the "Must-See TV" years, when you actually did lock into NBC on a Thursday night because it had "ER" and "Friends" and "Seinfeld" and whatever sitcom it stuck in between "Friends" and "Seinfeld."
The main trouble with "Comedy Night, Done Right" is that none of the shows are big hits; "The Office" and "30 Rock" are terrific, but they're also niche successes that are available on multiple platforms, including NBC's own website.
Of course, "Comedy Night, Done Whenever You Feel Like It" is somehow not as catchy. That NBC tried to push a night of shows suggests the network's trying to go retro with its brand, perhaps to stoke yuppie nostalgia, as when Volkswagen came out with a sleeker version of its old-school Beetle.
ABC is closer than any of its rivals to actualizing a brand, which is to say following the scent of its biggest hit, "Grey's Anatomy." Among the new series ABC picked up for the fall are "Cashmere Mafia," described as "a thinking-woman's 'Sex and the City' mixed with the wit of 'The Devil Wears Prada,' " and "Pushing Daisies," a romantic-sounding dramedy in which a baker of pies (Hint, ladies: He's good with his hands) teams with a detective to bring his childhood sweetheart back from the dead.
Only ABC seems to have picked up on the modern-female vibe, done in ensemble repose, popularized by "Sex and the City." Remember when ABC was the network of classic family sitcoms ("Roseanne," "Grace Under Fire," "Home Improvement") and type-A cops and lawyers ("NYPD Blue," "The Practice")? Though ABC is picking up a few sitcoms (including one based on the caveman character in the Geico commercials), the network isn't in the sitcom business anymore, at least not as half-hours. Its most successful sitcoms are "Ugly Betty" and "Desperate Housewives," two hourlong shows that exude a kind of gentrified, PG-13 culture.
Hoping it's no longer typecast
CBS is trying to get a groove back and so is moving away from left-brain case-solving, not to mention sitcoms starring lumpen proletariats (Kevin James, whose long-running "The King of Queens" bowed Monday, would not get a sitcom on the network today; he's too fat).
Among the more interesting of the network's pickups is the un-CBS-like "Viva Laughlin," an adaptation of the BBC series "Viva Blackpool," about low-rent gamblers, schemers and dreamers, which features Hugh Jackman in a role that has nothing to do with DNA evidence or paramilitary ops.