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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.

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"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."

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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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