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

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    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.
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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.

"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").

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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."

Many of the new dramas combine successful elements from established franchises. The dramas such as "The Mentalist," "Fringe," "The Eleventh Hour," "My Own Worst Enemy," and "Life on Mars" feature supernatural or paranormal elements combined with procedural story lines to make each episode more self-contained. These tap the same techniques on display all over the existing prime-time schedule, from "Heroes" to "Lost" and any number of crime procedurals such as the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises.

"What we're seeing is a very conservative schedule this year," says Mary Dalton, associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "There is very little that pushes any creative boundaries," she says, adding that the new comedies – "Gary Unmarried," "Do Not Disturb," "Kath & Kim," "Worst Week" – offer little improvement. Half of them still have the traditional studio-audience comedy format pioneered by Lucille Ball in the 1950s.

Even "Fringe," perhaps the season's most anticipated new drama, a sci-fi thriller from veteran show runner J.J. Abrams, draws on his clearly exercised interest in mystery and semi-paranormal science, storytelling elements prominently explored in his current hit show "Lost." The series, which debuted this week (the pilot will be re-aired Sunday night), follows an FBI agent as she untangles the corporate and scientific conspiracies behind ultraweird physical phenomena that are both deadly and uncontained.

In sharp contrast to a more standard network practice of canceling critically lauded but low-rated shows ("Jericho," "Veronica Mars"), this season will see the networks exploring strategies for new revenue streams that offer a reprieve to such underdogs. Approaches include previously unimaginable partnerships such as a deal between NBC and DirecTV. Under this agreement, the much-applauded but ratings-challenged "Friday Night Lights" will air to the satellite service's 17 million subscribers this fall before it comes back on NBC next year.

The peacock network is also pushing the boundaries of audience tolerance for overt commercialization of scripted shows. The new "Knight Rider" will flaunt its General Motors connection. One critic dubbed the show's movie preview this past season "a two-hour car commercial." The Christian Slater-helmed drama, "My Own Worst Enemy," will also become a vehicle for touting the GM name.

"What we are trying to do is integrate marketing," says Mr. Graboff. "We're trying to make it more organic to the show," he says, adding that with the 1980s drama about an intelligent car, the automobile firm partnership was "like low-hanging fruit."

One of the more pronounced trends is the ongoing comedy drought. Only a quarter of the new shows are "laffers." Indeed, networks continue to struggle to craft the defining comedy for the post-"Friends" television world.

Audience expectations are so much higher today, says Jonathan Zipper, entertainment editor at the social media site, whereIstand.com, who points out that the relatively simplistic sitcoms of a few decades ago such as "Saved by the Bell" or "Charles in Charge" would never fly today. Younger viewers have been weaned on the single-camera, non-laugh-track style of reality TV and expect a much higher level of sophistication from comedy. He points to shows such as "30 Rock" and "The Office."

Beyond that, says Mara Einstein, an associate professor of media studies at City University of New York's Queen's College, while the traditional three-camera-studio-audience sitcom – "Two and a Half Men," "According to Jim," "The New Adventures of Old Christine" – continues to deliver solid ratings, audiences for these shows tend to skew older.

"These days advertisers want a younger, hipper audience," she says, "and networks are realizing they can survive with lower ratings as long as they are delivering the more desirable audience."

"Comedy is really hard to do," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "It is also the building block for a network because, when it works, it is so powerful."

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