HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — In case you haven't picked up a remote since "Seinfeld" went off the air, all it takes is a casual surf to notice that, well, network TV has changed.
Everywhere you look on prime-time television, there is language and behavior that would have been unthinkable just a few short seasons ago.
"Joe Millionaire" recently featured subtitled make-out scenes on Fox, while ABC's ads for "Are You Hot?" have told us to forget anything you've ever done in your life, the only thing that matters is how sexy you are.
But the truth is, while the avalanche of sleaze alone may seem major to the casual observer, it's actually just a small part of what TV insiders regard as a wholesale reevaluation of the way TV does business. The only guarantee at the moment is that more changes are on the way.
"The whole model is changing for everybody," says Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS.
The engine of this rush to come up with a more profitable business model is, of course, the proliferating competition of a 500-plus channel TV universe.
Three years ago, this drive kicked into high gear with the surprise success of unscripted shows, beginning with "Survivor."
Now, TV executives are questioning some of the most established tenets of modern commercial TV: Does the TV season have to run from September to May? Is there any other way to advertise? Why not show programs more than once, the way HBO and the other premium cable companies do? Would the world end if shows weren't exactly one half-hour or one-hour long?
Network attempts to answer these questions have begun to remake the TV landscape.
This season, fans of the new Friday night detective show, "Monk," which was a modest hit for the basic USA cable channel, have been able to catch up on missed episodes replayed on ABC. This is the first time a network has aired a first-run cable series. The current NBC series "Kingpin" will also be available not only on a sister cable network, Bravo, but on the Spanish-language Telemundo network.
"With as many choices as people have today," says Jamie Kellner, chairman and chief executive, Turner Broadcasting System, "expecting people to watch something in one run in a week is no longer practical."
The WB puts the multiplay concept into practice on its Sunday night "Easy View." This is a night viewers can catch up on the previous week's episodes of WB shows such as "Everwood" and "Smallville."
"The advertisers have been behind it from Day 1," says Mr. Kellner. "As soon as we announced it, we had two major agencies come in and ask if they could buy all the time." Kellner says Easy View has also been a ratings winner for the network.
Then there's summer. Instead of being a wasteland of series rerurns, it has become a viable launching pad for new shows, as demonstrated by the ongoing success of everything from "Big Brother" to "American Idol." While the unscripted genre has been the most successful in the summer, the networks are working to expand the possibilities.
"We're in a transitional phase," says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. "In four years, we're going to have 52 weeks of original programming and a lot of that summer programming will be scripted."
Networks are also working to stay ahead of technology. With the growing use of tape and digital recorders, viewers are no longer prisoners of the 30-second ad.
This summer, the WB tackles that issue head-on with what it's calling a new/old variety pop-culture show. It will bypass entirely the traditional commercial break. Instead, in a nod to the earliest days of both TV and radio, the show will go for sponsored product placement, using logos and products throughout.
First, says Jed Patrick, president and CEO of the WB, summer is a good time to air a show like this because pop culture is hot during the summer months, with music tours and big movie releases.
But more important, "if there's an audience that's going to embrace something different like [our show]," says Mr. Patrick, "it's a younger audience because they've grown up in a world that's been pretty saturated with the commercial content."
Other smaller tweaks have been sneaking onto TV horizons for a while now. When was the last time you checked the start and finish times of "Friends" and "ER?"
In case you haven't noticed, you've had two extra minutes of those wacky Manhattan singles (it ends at 8:32), those swinging singles, "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," which both end at 10:02, and one extra minute of your favorite emergency room singles, starting at 9:59.
"You look to maximize your greatest assets," says Jeff Zucker, who adds that NBC, just like everyone else, is experimenting with all kinds of different new models. "We have to be competitive and original," he says. "It's what we have to do to survive."
And networks should survive, says media pundit Robert Thompson, 500-plus channels notwithstanding, because they perform an important cultural function.
"This whole idea of wanting to be connected to the culture at large, to give yourself the vocabulary of what's going on," he says, is the role of the mainstream broadcaster. "The networks are still the unified center of this great mass culture and there's a huge appeal in that."