Playing it safe, television sticks with the tried and true

New season offers few fresh shows, but frugal times may pull in more viewers looking for cheap entertainment.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    'Dollhouse': Joss Whedon's thriller about a shadowy mind-control agency, starring Eliza Dushku (above), is one of a few new shows creating buzz this season. Another is 'Nurse Jackie.'
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Once upon a time, in the world of network television, January was a big deal, a launching pad for important new shows. Some of TV history's most influential programs debuted in this midseason slot. Norman Lear's groundbreaking "All in the Family" sneaked onto the winter schedule in 1971, and the gritty, seminal "Hill Street Blues" arrived in early 1981.

But this year, in an industry still recovering from the production delays and $2.1 billion in losses from last year's 100-day writers' strike and struggling to stem audience erosion, the midterm slate is a lackluster event at best, say media watchers.

"There are no real new programming trends," says Michael Burgi, editor of Mediaweek, in New York. "The shows are all over the place," he says, adding that this hodgepodge reflects the "chaos" of the overall industry itself.

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"It's downright depressing," says Jeff McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. The networks are trying to survive in tough economic times, he says, but they're making the wrong decisions for a creative business. "They're operating out of fear," says Mr. McCall. "They're afraid to try anything out of the mold, so there's no innovation."

From a warmed-over retread of a 10-year-old show ("Cupid," on ABC) to more reality shows (Ashton Kutcher's "Game Show in My Head") and crime serials (Fox's "Lie to Me," about a human lie detector), the schedule abounds with sameness. "The network executives strike me as timid poker players," McCall says. "They want to make big money but they're afraid to put any big money on the table."

While the TV industry scrambles to compete with so many burgeoning entertainment alternatives to the small screen, reality – the real thing, not the programming genre – has become the ultimate trump card. Who needs to tune in the prime-time shenanigans of a "Dirty Sexy Money," when the evening news is replete with the malfeasance of a Bernard Madoff or the collapse of global insurance giant AIG? And then there are the historymaking moments created by the industry itself.

"NBC's recent announcement that it will kill its 10 p.m. dramas and put in Jay Leno may be the darkest moment in network history," says Robert Thompson, director of The Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. This is the home of many of the industry's proudest achievements in dramatic storytelling – "The West Wing," "E.R." – he says, adding, "they are now signaling effectively they are out of the dramatic-series business."

Against this larger, somber canvas, fans of several network hits such as ABC's "Lost" and Fox's "24" can look forward to the return of shows that have been gone for nearly a year. But here again, reality may intrude. While several major unions – the writers'; directors'; and competing actors' union, AFTRA – have signed new contracts, the major actors' union, the Screen Actors Guild, has asked its 120,000 members to authorize a strike as early as mid-January. And on Feb. 17, the roughly 10 percent of television watchers who tune in using antennae will be forced to give up their rabbit ears when over-the-air broadcasting shifts permanently from analog to digital signals. To watch "free TV," viewers will have to buy a digital converter.

"This is a disproportionately large group of major-network viewers," points out McCall. Here again, he says, the networks face the fact that at least one-third of this group will invest in some form of cable or satellite service. "Once that happens, they will explore and experiment with their new TV-watching tools. This is yet another group that will be watching fewer traditional broadcasts," he adds.

At the same time, there are compelling forces in favor of increased television viewing, says futurist Marian Saltzman of New York's Porter Novelli, an international public relations firm. When people are losing their jobs and homes at historic rates, even people who have work feel the worry. "When the evening news is full of reports that nobody is safe from a Bernie Madoff or the collapse of the world economy, everybody starts looking for ways to save money," says Ms. Saltzman. "Obviously, television is some of the cheapest entertainment around."

A handful of new arrivals have generated anticipatory "buzz," says Emma Loggins, founder and editor of fanbolt.com, an Atlanta-based website for and by fans. She points to such "hot tickets" as Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" (Fox), a thriller about a shadowy, mind-control agency starring Eliza Dushku, and "Nurse Jackie," Showtime's newest series starring Edie Falco.

Once more, though, real-life events in January will overshadow the TV landscape. The inauguration on Jan. 20, says Mr. Burgi, may be the most momentous television programming that month. When actual events are this dramatic, scripted television takes a back seat.

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