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Fewer laughs in fall's TV lineup

Short on comedy, new dramas still combine best elements of old franchises.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2008

Striking writers picketed outside the NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif., in this Jan. 8 file photo. As the fall season gets under way, the big story across TV land is the long-lasting impact of the 100-day writers' strike that concluded in February.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/FILE

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Beverly Hills, Calif.,

As the fall season gets under way, the big story across TV land is the long-lasting impact of the 100-day writers' strike that concluded in February.

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"The strike changed everything in terms of the way development went," says Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment. There are fewer new shows on the major networks – ABC has only two ("Life on Mars" and "Opportunity Knocks") – and more than a quarter of the new series are either repackaged or repurposed material.

Only 16 new scripted shows are being rolled out – down from a high of nearly 40 a decade ago. Four of the new series are based on programs from overseas ("Kath & Kim," "The Ex List," "Eleventh Hour," and "Life on Mars"), while two are retreads from earlier eras in US tubegazing ("Beverly Hills 90210" and "Knight Rider").

But as in any good Hollywood script, the main narrative is not the full story by any measure. This season's offerings reflect deeper industry trends as well. "The strike accelerated changes that had already been started," says Marc Graboff, co-chair of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios.

Those changes include a rapidly eroding broadcast television audience base in the face of an explosion of competition from other entertainment, most notably the vast diversions of the Internet. This feeds an industry-wide scramble to find new revenue streams as TiVo and other digital video recorders render the 30-second ad spot less effective. These strategies are "much more a reaction to what digital is enabling than some creative choice we're making," says Ben Silverman, co-chair of NBC.

What this all means for the average viewer scrolling through the fall debuts is a blitz of enticements to resample freshman shows from the past season, such as "Pushing Daisies," "Life, " "Dirty Sexy Money," and "Lipstick Jungle."

Returning tent pole shows such as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" will arrive with the fanfare of a feature film première. "We're going to make Sunday night and "Desperate Housewives" a priority launch for the fall," says Mr. McPherson, "which would not be a regular thing if we had a lot of new shows and a lot of priorities."

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