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.
Beverly Hills, Calif.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.