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A stretch of a season

Networks are scrambling after the writers strike that played havoc with last year and leaves this fall in an awkward position.

September 14, 2008|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

Just forget about the last year. Pretend it never happened!

That's basically the message from the TV networks. The 2007-08 season was one of the strangest on record, so network executives seem eager to reset the clock and just start over, if they can.

The three-month writers strike that ended in February did more than just depress ratings -- which were already under pressure in an ever-fragmenting media marketplace -- and keep last September's lineup from ever really getting off the ground. It also threw plans for this new season into disarray. Some managed to make the best of the bad situation; CBS hustled out 15 pilots or presentations for fall shows in just eight weeks this spring, and was thus the only broadcaster to send critics the usual summer preview copies of the new series it eventually ordered -- a key step in building buzz and getting advance press.

But the entire business is still scrambling to overcome the body blow from last winter's work stoppage -- and technically, an actors strike is possible later this year, although few insiders expect that to happen. Even though there are far fewer fall premieres than usual, networks for the most part barely have time to mail DVDs to reviewers before the shows hit the airwaves over the next few days and weeks. If the typical promotional drumbeat for fall TV sounds a little softer than normal this year, the blowback from the strike is why.

Even so, top executives sound confident that viewers who drifted away earlier this year will return and the world will right itself.

"The rhythms of the business in general are a little up in the air right now," Kevin Reilly, entertainment president of Fox, said, understatedly. "Will every one of [the shows] come back at exactly the level they were before? It's too soon to know . . . [But] I do believe we will really see a resetting in the fall, and pretty much a return to somewhat-normalcy."

And NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf said, "It takes time to get over the disruption in normal viewing patterns. But slowly but surely, I think any patterns should be returning to normal by fall."

That's the corner-office prayer, anyway. The "normal" that the networks are looking for seems to be the pre-strike status quo.

So the new lineups tend to go light on the sizzle. Risk is out; circumspection is in. Viewers have grown accustomed to at least one high-stakes time slot battle every autumn between two or more much-anticipated new series; last year's 9 p.m. Wednesday contest between ABC's "Private Practice" and NBC's (now-departed) "Bionic Woman" comes to mind. But that trope has gone missing this time around.

Fox's main push is behind J.J. Abrams' latest thriller, "Fringe," which drew 9.1 million total viewers -- a disappointment considering the series' cost and high level of visibility -- in its Tuesday premiere, according to Nielsen Media Research. The show may get more sampling in its usual time slot after the medical hit "House." But it will be squaring off against two entrenched reality shows, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and NBC's "The Biggest Loser: Families."

ABC has just one new scripted series, an American adaptation of the British sci-fi/crime drama "Life on Mars" (although last month executives ordered five additional new shows that will round out the roster later in the season). "There are a lot of unknowns going into this fall," said ABC entertainment boss Steve McPherson, explaining the programming conservatism. "Much more than any past year."

Are there at least a few semi-bold moves? Well, sure. Network programming is still a competitive business, and chaos can often present the best opportunity to place one's bets. The CW, for example, ran out ahead of the pack with premieres earlier this month, and was rewarded with strong ratings for its unveiling of "90210," the update of the old Aaron Spelling teen soap, not to mention the second-season opener of "Gossip Girl." In the second week, both shows continued to hang onto their target audience of young women, but it's unclear what will happen once the fall competition begins in earnest.

CBS, meanwhile, is trying to break out of its procedural rut by opening up a new night of comedy on Wednesdays, importing "The New Adventures of Old Christine" from Mondays and adding a new sitcom, "Gary Unmarried" with Jay Mohr.

CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said the network had long been mulling a new comedy block beyond Monday, where "Two and a Half Men" reigns as TV's No. 1 sitcom. "We needed to have the goods," she said.

For the eighth-season premiere in January, Fox will even overhaul "American Idol," including adding a fourth judge. Viewership ebbed last season, although Reilly scoffed at talk of a franchise decline: "Too much was made out of it," he said of the ratings dip. "Idol" "ended up being down 7%, which is pretty much what network television was down."

Of course, talking about gutsy scheduling plays and program switcheroos makes the outcomes sound more assured than they are. No one knows what's going to work or what the audience will do. Sometimes hit shows come out of the margins, a serendipity that could happen this year as easily as in another.

NBC, for instance, has high hopes for "Crusoe," its old-fashioned adventure epic based on the classic novel, although it's running in the little-trafficked precincts of 8 p.m. Fridays. "Sometimes shows that quietly go on the air can really surprise," Metcalf said.

But after the year that the broadcasters just endured, that kind of surprise may be too much to hope for. The networks enter this most uncertain of seasons confident in the knowledge that this autumn couldn't possibly usher in a year that turns out any weirder than the last.

Could it?


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