Fall TV: Numerous misses, a few surprise hits

Mike Duffy
Detroit Free Press

One month into the new fall TV season and the shakeout has begun. The networks are happy. Overall viewership is up thanks to burgeoning hit shows like "Ugly Betty" and "Heroes."

But the networks are nervous. A lot of the other new series are fizzling and fading, kicking off an early start to schedule shifts and time-slot swapping.

And one lonely network - the new CW - may be suffering an identity crisis.

Except for "America's Next Top Model," many of the CW series from "Gilmore Girls" to "Everybody Hates Chris" are doing worse than a year ago in their previous network homes of now-defunct WB and UPN.

How sweet and sour it is. That's TV in the land of a thousand channels.

And now let's get busy with key channel-surfing developments, Captain Video's lowdown on the early weeks of the 2006 TV season:

Best Network Move: ABC's bold and wildly successful shift of "Grey's Anatomy" to Thursdays, where it has grown into TV's No. 1 show. The hot medical soap is outshining "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" in the decade's biggest heavyweight showdown of two major hit shows.

The Pick That Clicked: Producer Salma Hayek's beguiling "Ugly Betty," the Americanized telenovela tales of a brainy Queens wallflower who survives the snarky workplace shark tank at a glossy New York fashion magazine, goes to the head of the freshman class as a surefire hit. "Ugly Betty" has teamed with "Grey's Anatomy" to give ABC a Thursday night lock on upscale female viewers. The only downside for lovers of cool TV is that "Betty " has taken a bite out of the clever NBC comedies "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office."

The Big Surprises: "Heroes" and "Jericho." The former is NBC's most pleasant fall success, a comic book superhero odyssey with heart, humor and the ability to appeal to viewers beyond the sci-fi and fantasy geek audience as it builds toward unqualified hit status. "Heroes" is already renewed for a full season. But CBS's "Jericho" - the grimly downbeat story of a rural Kansas town in the aftermath of a mysterious nuclear attack - may be an even more unlikely success story. It's been averaging a very impressive 11 million viewers at 8 p.m. Wednesdays, giving the Eye a ratings prize it didn't really expect.

The Serial Thriller Thrill Is Gone: The hot fall season trend brought a boom in "Lost" and "24" wanna-bes. But though serialized "Jericho" and "Heroes" have connected with viewers, such newbie serial thrillers as "Smith," "Kidnapped," "Runaway" and "Vanished" have already failed or are headed in that dubious direction. What happened? Too many similar shows and viewers who don't have enough time to get hooked on so many convoluted, serialized stories.

Schedule Bingo Jitters: Fox, with zero new hits, is madly scrambling to rearrange its schedule, with "House," "Justice," "Vanished" and "Standoff" moving to a new night or switching time slots after the baseball playoffs. Plus, CBS has already flip-flopped "The Class" and "How I Met Your Mother" on Monday nights. And after one week, CW moved "Everybody Hates Chris" and the rest of its Sunday sitcom lineup to Monday, while "7th Heaven" and flat-lining "Runaway" shifted to Sunday.

The Big Disappointments: Based on hype and high hopes, along with very strong reviews from TV critics, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "The Nine," "Friday Night Lights," "The Class" and "30 Rock" all failed to match the buzz and big ratings their networks dreamed of.

Dumbest Network Move: NBC's decision to schedule the similarly themed "Studio 60" and "30 Rock" as part of the same fall lineup. And when you add in the harsh reality that "inside show business" series are a notoriously tough sell on network TV, well, that's a lot of bad programming voodoo to overcome.

Is "Lost" Losing Its Mojo?: The scary answer for ABC is looking like yes. CBS's surging "Criminal Minds" has climbed into the Top 10 this year at the expense of "Lost," which suffered a 24 percent audience drop-off for its third-season premiere. Ouch. And in more disturbing news for the Alphabet Network, the former buzz queens of Wisteria Lane are in decline with "Desperate Housewives" down 18 percent from last year. That's enough to drive Bree back to the bottle.

The Old Reliables: The non-serialized, no loose-ends crime procedural remains the dominant prime-time genre. Credit the sturdy, nearly endless appeal of the "CSI" and "Law & Order" shows, along with such crime theme teammates as "Cold Case," "Without a Trace" and "Criminal Minds."

A Star Is Born: Let's hear it for bright, charming America Ferrera, the fall season's No. 1 breakout personality as the appealing star of "Ugly Betty." Runner-up: "Heroes" star Masi Oka, the coolest time traveler in prime time as adventurous Japanese office worker Hiro, the cheerfully mischievous and magnificent.

Five Best New Series: Forget the ratings. We're talking quality TV, smart TV, fun TV. The Non-Jive Five are "Ugly Betty," "Heroes," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "The Nine," "The Class."

Five Worst New Series: The Jive Five are "Twenty Good Years," "Vanished," "The Game," "'Til Death" and "Happy Hour."

Best New Cable Series: "Dexter." Following up on last summer's sensational "Brotherhood," Showtime has scored big quality points again with the mesmerizing story of a vigilante serial killer (Michael C. Hall, "Six Feet Under") with heart and a charmingly twisted deadpan wit.





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