An American TV institution - as old and seasonally familiar as Sunday afternoon football games - has quietly disappeared from the landscape this month: premiere week of the new fall season.
For half a century networks have been premiering new shows in the fall - a Sunday-through-Sunday orgy of new series debuting and old favorites returning. Since the start of the Emmy Awards telecast as a September event in 1977, fall premiere week has always been the second or third week of September, with the Emmy Awards announcing its arrival.
Until this year. For the first time in history there is no fall premiere week. While the end of such a ritual is noteworthy in its own right, the deeper significance of no-premiere-week is found in what it says about the radical changes taking place in network television these days.
"I don't think you'll ever again see a fall premiere week like we used to have when all the networks put all their stuff on at one time. I think that's a thing of the past," Brad Turrell, executive vice president of the WB network, said this week.
The ostensible cause of the missing fall premiere week is the Summer Olympics, which occur for the first time in September. Since NBC is carrying the Australia games on tape in prime time, it could not launch its new series until the Olympics are over. But other networks also pointed to the games for the change in fall programming strategy.
As Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Entertainment, put it: "If we marketed and launched our new shows before the Olympics, we'd probably have to do it again after they were over. So, it makes more sense to keep our powder dry."
Fox's rollout of the new season is typical. It will debut three new series - "Dark Angel," "Freakylinks" and "Night Visions" - the first week of October, which will be a fairly busy week at most of the networks.
But two other new series - "The Street" and "The John Goodman Show" - won't premiere until Nov. 1. Such returning series as "Malcolm in the Middle," "The Simpsons" and "The X-Files" won't start their new seasons until Nov. 5.
Lloyd Braun, co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group, said much the same thing as Grushow when he was asked why ABC also is waiting until after the Olympics to launch new series and bring back its returning shows.
"We expect the Olympics to do well. How well? Who knows? I think we just made a business decision that we'll launch our shows afterward. And it just made good sense to us," Braun said.
Even WB, whose fall season opens on Sept. 22 with "Grosse Pointe," a sitcom that parodies "Beverly Hills, 90210," has an Olympics strategy.
"We're starting in September as a counter-programming option to the Olympics," said Turrell, who is following "Grosse Pointe" with return of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," two of its most successful series.
"Newer networks almost always find that when normal viewing patterns get interrupted by event programming like the Olympics, they get sampled by people who normally might not watch," said Turrell. "There are going to be core NBC viewers who are just not interested in Olympic coverage, and they'll be looking around. Hopefully, they'll look at us and like what they see."
But, while the Olympics are a major factor in the scheduling of new series this fall, the larger story about the disappearance of fall premiere week is the result of larger changes in television as we've known it for 50 years.
"It is a fact - and it is the fact that you have to start with - that the biggest and/or best television shows the last two years have not been shows that premiered in the fall - the time when we have traditionally expected the best of what the networks have to offer," said Barry Garron, chief television critic for the Hollywood Reporter, the trade publication most in tune with the cycles of network programming and production.
The two shows to which Garron refers are ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and CBS' "Survivor." Both have debuted in the summer, and both have done record-setting business for their networks, launching a copycat mania for more and more reality programs.
But the shrinking significance of fall television goes beyond even those two blockbusters. The most talked-about drama series of the last two years, HBO's "The Sopranos," premiered in January, which is when its annual season regularly starts. Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," the one hit sitcom last year, also premiered at midseason.
And, for all the promotional messages the networks are now airing in an attempt to get us excited about their new fall shows, the predetermined big event of the upcoming television season is the debut of "Survivor 2: The Australian Outback," scheduled to air after the Super Bowl Jan. 23 on CBS.
Fall is no longer where the action is.
Perhaps, the most direct way to gauge the change this year compared with fall premiere weeks past is by looking at ABC, the Disney-owned network. ABC, which has introduced as many as 14 new series a fall, is adding only four new ones to its schedule this year.
That has nothing to do with the Olympics. And it's not because ABC has so many hit dramas and sitcoms. It's rather that the network will be airing episodes of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" four nights a week this year, and that leaves little room for anything beyond Regis Philbin on ABC's schedule.
No one is saying the networks will stop offering new lineups of shows each fall. The idea of a new fall season each year still counts in a fundamental financial way: Like the car industry, network television needs a new season every year to keep the cash from advance sales flowing.
Each May, the networks announce a lineup of new shows replacing those that the advertising community is no longer interested in, and advertisers pony up more than $1 billion just on the basis of pilots and presentation tapes. That's easy money for the networks, so easy that it guarantees a new fall lineup in some form or another for the immediate future at least.
But get used to living without the excess and excitement of a fall premiere week as we've known it for most of lives.
Turrell sees this year as representative of what's ahead with the newer networks starting early, the older networks stretching out the return of their established shows and the debut of their new series anywhere from three to eight weeks so as to avoid the clutter from a new series getting canceled before the public has had a chance to find it.
He sees this longer rollout as a more "cost effective" way of doing business, and that's one way of viewing it. But an executive at another network, who did not want his name used, offered another perspective.
"Is it saner not to throw all our programs up against each other? Sure. But when fans of 'The Simpsons' don't get to see new episodes until Nov. 5 [as is the case on Fox this year], and you're looking at reruns by late December, don't let the networks tell you how much they love you.
"In the end, you know what this is all about. It's about the Viacoms and the Disneys and the News Corps downsizing yet another part of the America we grew up with to fatten their bottom line."