Fall TV preview: Why broadcast networks deserve another look

Maureen Ryan
Chicago Tribune (MCT)


That's the only word to describe the fall TV season, which is the biggest casualty of the 100-day writers strike.

TV executives often talk about wanting to shake up the way they do business. And TV critics and viewers often wish networks wouldn't load each fall season with more new programs than any sane person can absorb.

This year, both wishes were granted. Thanks to the strike, which began in November, fewer new shows were made for fall. As of this writing, I've only seen eight of about two dozen new programs. They're not necessarily all bad (a few were even surprisingly pleasant), but there's a tentativeness about the broadcast network offerings.

We're getting remakes of foreign shows ("Eleventh Hour," "Kath & Kim," "Life on Mars"), remakes of old shows ("90210," "Knight Rider") and remakes of classic literature ("Crusoe" and "My Own Worst Enemy," a Jekyll and Hyde tale). Even the most high-profile offering, J.J. Abrams' "Fringe," seems, at first glance, to be an amalgamation of ideas from shows such as "X-Files" and "Twilight Zone."

Is it time for the broadcast networks, which have given us this buzz-free fall, to exit stage left? Should they cede the tube to more adventurous cable networks? That's what Mark Harris argues in a provocative recent piece in Portfolio.

By surrendering to the relentless niche-ification that the digital age has brought, cable networks, which identify and pursue specific slices of the TV audience, are operating at an advantage, Harris argues.

"Broadcast networks want everyone," Harris writes. "And the business of wanting everyone has never been worse."

Before we plan the memorial service for the broadcast networks, I'd like to point out two things.

First, cable networks are not infallible. On Monday, TNT debuts a tepid legal drama, "Raising the Bar." Its creator, Steven Bochco ("L.A. Law," "Hill Street Blues"), helped rewrite the network-TV playbook with his earlier series. Trouble is, his show feels like a broadcast-network legal drama from the '90s, not like "The Closer," TNT's most successful show.

Second, I have three words for Harris: The "Lost" pilot. What cable network would have spent more than $10 million on that, as ABC did. Perhaps "Lost's" success is an anomaly, but that was one attempt to woo "everyone" that worked out OK.

Much as it pains me (the memory of "Viva Laughlin" lingers), I come not to bury the broadcast networks, but to praise them.

Cable is indeed having a well-deserved moment in the sun -- the returns of "The Shield" on FX and "Dexter" on Showtime are the most anticipated September events in my house. But the game is more fun when all teams are giving their best.

As long as the broadcast networks are around, they're going to be giving people money to make TV shows. Many resulting programs will be bad, but every year there are gems.

So is there a treasure to be found in this year's muddled mixture? That remains to be seen.

Stay tuned.





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