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fall television preview

Ghosts of seasons past

It's Prime-time DÉjÀ Vu As The Big Five Trot Out Their Tried And Once-true. But Can Even A 'Bionic Woman' Stem The Ratings Slide?


The battleground of Wednesdays at 9 p.m. this fall yields perhaps the best clue about what the broadcast networks are up to this season.
At least in name, every network has a new series in that time slot, with one notable exception. But look a little closer and the fresh is revealed as the familiar. "Private Practice" is ABC's much-anticipated spinoff of "Grey's Anatomy." NBC's "Bionic Woman" is a noir-ish, post-feminist spin on the 1970s sci-fi staple. Fox is going with "Kitchen Nightmares," a culinary-reality sequel of sorts with "Hell's Kitchen" chef-star Gordon Ramsay.
The one returning series during the hour, "Criminal Minds," will feature a new lead (Joe Mantegna replacing Mandy Patinkin), but it's unlikely CBS' reliable-if-unsurprising profiler drama will otherwise become a font of innovation.
In their bid to stem continued audience erosion, the networks evidently hope viewers will gravitate toward the already proven or at least the comfortably recognizable (even though a skeptic could reasonably wonder why executives seem to believe the ratings drop-offs can somehow be reversed by shows that resemble shows that have already aired). The thirst for the familiar explains why ABC, for example, is banking on "Women's Murder Club," based on the bestselling crime series by James Patterson, and Fox is trying to revive the sitcom with "Back to You," a deliberately old-fashioned premise starring two comedy veterans, Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. ABC borrowed inspiration from an immensely popular insurance ad for its new comedy "Cavemen."

Even ABC's "Pushing Daisies," the whimsical resurrection fantasy that some critics have singled out as the most original show of the season -- a backhanded compliment, perhaps -- has a darkly comic tone and bright palette recalling "Desperate Housewives."

Why the lack of programming ambition? Especially at a time when some of the bold choices made by cable networks have many observers proclaiming a new "golden age" of TV?

Well, look at the circumstances. The network television business has plenty of reasons to feel anxious these days. It's not just that viewers are defecting to cable and the Internet; the ones who remain are getting older. Every network has seen its median viewer age climb significantly over the last five years. Fox, the youngest of the big four networks and No. 1 in adults 18 to 49, has nevertheless aged from 35 to 42, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's very bad news for a business that has traditionally sold advertisers on the youth appeal of its programming.

Meanwhile, sitcoms, which in years past filled studio coffers with untold riches, have become an endangered species. There will be just 22 comedies on the air this fall, down from 49 in fall 2003. NBC, a longtime leader in the genre, didn't put a single new comedy on the fall schedule for the first time in three decades. After years of frustrating failed experiments, single-camera and otherwise ("Andy Richter Controls the Universe," anyone?), Fox's nostalgia exercise "Back to You" may seem the closest thing to a safe bet.

As if all this wasn't gloomy enough, the networks are facing some sobering behind-the-scenes business developments as well. Labor strife is looming, with a possible writers' strike on the horizon. And the networks are locked in a nasty tiff with Apple over the online pricing of programming that's already led NBC to forge a risky new deal with

But then, as executives like to say, all it takes is one hit. And it just may happen that somewhere in their generally unspectacular lineups this fall, each network has a series or two that may enable it to gain some purchase as the industry continues its scary metamorphosis.

Take CBS, for example. Seeing sharp erosion last season for its No. 1 series, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (opposite "Grey's Anatomy"), as well as for the signature "Survivor" franchise, the network did make a few bold moves this fall. Among them: Putting "Viva Laughlin," a freewheeling casino drama cum musical comedy, at 8 p.m. Sundays. How loyal viewers of "60 Minutes" will react to such a juxtaposition is unknown, but suffice it to say that "Laughlin" is a long way from "Murder, She Wrote" or "Touched by an Angel." CBS has another drama that is truly different, and in a good way -- the engrossing, funny and psychologically complex '70s period piece "Swingtown" -- but it's saving that for midseason.

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