Kat Dennings, left, and Beth Behrs will star in "2 Broke Girls,"… (Neilson Barnard, Getty…)
Judging by the new fall schedules, networks have decided that the way out of their troubles is to make women laugh.
Broadcasters unveiled their coming lineups in New York this week, and the consensus among media buyers and journalists was that the new shows this year were better than last. Which isn't necessarily saying much, because last year was mostly a wasteland with virtually no hit premieres. Among the flops were male-skewing dramas such as Fox's "Lone Star" (it lasted two episodes) and NBC's "The Cape" (nine). The remake of "Hawaii Five-0" got a renewal but not the blockbuster ratings CBS was hoping for.
So a change in priorities was needed. CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler this week cited her network's two top goals as producing more comedies and doing more to appeal to female viewers, and indeed those seemed to be widely held sentiments in executive suites this development spring. NBC's new schedule couldn't have been more packaged expressly for women if it came in a pink box wrapped with tissue paper and baby's breath.
Probably for the first time in network TV history, most of the 10 new comedies coming this fall have female leads, including CBS' "2 Broke Girls" with Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, Fox's "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" with Jaime Pressly and "The New Girl" with Zooey Deschanel, and NBC's "Whitney" with Whitney Cummings.
"This could be a breakout year for new comedies," said Brad Adgate of the advertising firm Horizon Media in New York. After naysayers spent much of the last decade writing off network sitcoms as a dead art form, ABC's hit "Modern Family" has rekindled interest in the genre, just as "The Cosby Show" did in the mid-1980s, Adgate said.
But save any notions that in the second decade of the 21st century, TV may have finally discovered female empowerment. The title characters in "2 Broke Girls" — one of them a down-on-her-luck socialite — toil as waitresses in a hash-slinging Brooklyn diner. Based on clips, the show has more in common with Paris Hilton's fish-out-of-water reality show "The Simple Life" than with "Roseanne" or "Murphy Brown."
Similarly, in dramas, next season will be the year of the woman — as long as the woman is a Playboy bunny or a Pan Am stewardess and the year is 1963. NBC's "The Playboy Club" spins a tale of mob intrigue around the iconic nightclubs during the Kennedy administration. ABC's soap "Pan Am" flies the pre-airline deregulation (and pre-feminist) skies around the same period. ABC is even remaking "Charlie's Angels," the show about crime-fighting babes that drew complaints for exploiting women during its first run back in the 1970s.
Whether this infusion of estrogen will do the networks any good remains to be seen. CBS and Fox, the only networks playing from a position of strength, tinkered with their schedules to try to minimize weaknesses. Fox is banking heavily on "The X Factor," Simon Cowell's new singing contest, which it hopes will match or exceed the ratings for "American Idol." It will duplicate "Idol's" Wednesday-Thursday pattern, which means it could inflict maximum mischief on rivals' lineups if it succeeds anywhere near expectations.
CBS, meanwhile, finally erased the last remnants of its powerhouse Thursday from the last decade, pushing "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" to 10 p.m. Wednesday, where it's virtually assured to help boost the night. Meanwhile, "The Good Wife" was transferred to Sundays to take on ABC's aging "Desperate Housewives." The network is taking a big gamble by trying to anchor Thursdays with a new crime drama, "Person of Interest."
ABC, meanwhile, is playing Extreme Makeover: Network Edition. Chief programmer Paul Lee has blown up the old schedule and rolled out eight new series for fall, including "Last Man Standing," a comeback sitcom for Tim Allen; the dark, "Housewives"-like comedy "Suburgatory"; and "Revenge," a strange soap set in the tony world of the Hamptons.
And if the networks strike out again this fall? Well, there's always midseason.
Traditionally, January and on has been a dumping ground for series not good enough to make the fall cut. But this time, programmers are saving some of their best material for the winter.
Case in point? NBC's "Smash," perhaps the best-received show among media buyers this week. The Steven Spielberg-produced drama stars Katharine McPhee of "Idol" as an ingénue trying to make it in Broadway musicals. The show could have been ready for fall, but NBC wanted to pair it with "The Voice," the hit singing contest, which it felt shouldn't be rushed onto the September schedule since the first cycle will wrap in late June.
As a result, we may not know for many months how programmers really did this time around.
"The networks will probably have their strongest 'second season' ever," Adgate said.