Prime time's new season
With five hours of drama ditched for Jay Leno each week, TV insiders see a larger recalibration afoot.
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He is quick to point out that as yet, the nightly comedy hour, which starts Sept. 14, is an unknown quantity. Nonetheless, he adds, the mere replacement of five hours of drama with a variety show format diminishes the television landscape. While he understands that unscripted programming is here to stay, "five nights a week is craven," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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The lasting impact will be how the industry itself retools in response.
Fellow writer Shawn Ryan says the move is short-sighted even from a financial standpoint, since scripted dramas can be packaged and resold whereas topical talk shows have little value after one airing. Beyond that, as fewer shows are scripted, the industry loses venues for developing the next generations of writers, producers, and performers.
The last time writers lost so much prime-time real estate to unscripted programming, "we never got it back," says executive producer Don Reo, who remembers the bitter 1988 writers' strike that ushered in the current era of so-called "reality" television. "There is a place for art in our entertainment landscape," says Mr. Reo, stories that mean something to a broad range of people.
Cable has certainly become an important crucible for new scripted shows. Many of the Emmy nominations for next week's awards show, including AMC's "Mad Men" and FX's "Damages," are from cable. But, says executive producer Mr. Anderson, cable audiences are a fraction of what the broadcast networks pull together. "Cable appeals to niche audiences. The broadcast networks are the last bastion of eventized entertainment that we can all share."
Newcomer Dan Harmon, executive producer on NBC's new comedy "Community," says that after working in the cable environment, he wanted to work on a large network, specifically because he valued the "big tent" idea. "I wanted to make a show for everyone, something that actually [harked] back to the days when TV shows had a handsome man for the ladies, a beautiful girl for the guys, and a car for the kids. That shared experience is getting harder and harder to find."
Ultimately, though, the biggest reason history may record this fall as a landmark season lies outside Hollywood, says analyst Richard Goedkoop, professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
As Leno himself is quick to point out, the network is not a bunch of real estate in Los Angeles. The heart and soul of the broadcast network is the hundreds of affiliated stations in cities of all sizes across the nation.
The 10 p.m. shows serve as a lead-in to the affiliates' late-night news shows, he notes, the No. 1 profit center at most local stations. Any move that drains viewers before they are "delivered" to the 11 p.m. news hours could reverberate through the entire system.
"This could be the beginning of the unraveling of the affiliate network," he says, adding that if that happened, it would be an important evolutionary restructuring of the entertainment landscape.