After years of offering formulaic sitcoms and an overload of crude reality fare, network executives, in an unprecedented about-face, have peppered the new fall TV season with more than a dozen complex, serialized dramas that require viewers to follow complex plot twists and complicated narratives - and even put off the immediate gratification offered by stories that neatly wind up in an hour.
Though clearly inspired by the success of Fox's espionage thriller 24 and ABC's survivor series, Lost, the shows reflect how technologies such as those used by TiVo and On Demand cable are driving sweeping changes in how television shows are made and watched.
These more complicated dramas are also perfect vehicles for stories that grapple with the anxieties of a post-9/11 world. And their advent has some analysts calling the fall season a new "golden age" for television.
"Now we can watch on our own schedules - whether via DVD, TiVo, On Demand cable or iPods - and we can be much more engaged, watching at our own speed, rewinding at will," says Paul Levinson, a professor of media studies at Fordham University.
"Like books and movies, TV can now take real risks to achieve excellence. That's what you are seeing this fall, especially with the dramas that reflect the uncertainty and ambiguity of American life post-9/11."
Thirteen of 16 new fall dramas on the five broadcast networks abandon the traditional, self-contained, weekly format ritualized by such series as NBC's Law & Order. Instead of wrapping up each night, the narratives follow meandering story lines that resemble book chapters, building on past events while teasing viewers each week with cliffhanger endings.
"When people had to watch TV on rigid schedules dictated by the networks, shows had to be pitched to the lowest common denominator," says Levinson. The cardinal rule was "Thou shalt not confuse the viewer."
The abundance of serialized dramas this season can be traced to 24, which stars Kiefer Sutherland as a federal agent racing the clock to foil a terrorist plot. The Fox series, first broadcast on Oct. 30, 2001, just weeks after the attacks, draws 13 million viewers each week. "Any explanation for the deluge of serialized dramas this fall has to start with the success that 24 has enjoyed over the last five seasons," says Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic program planning at Fox. "And then comes Lost and Desperate Housewives - the success of those two serialized ABC dramas has to be factored in, too."
But the TV industry's long-standing tradition of copycat programming merely begins to explain the explosion in more sophisticated storytelling. "What we're seeing this fall with serialized drama goes way beyond imitation in terms of new technology, changing lifestyles and culture," says Abe Novick, senior vice president of Eisner Communications, one of the country's largest buyers of TV advertising time. The communications group also oversees America's Family Room, a research center that studies how consumers use the media in their everyday lives.
DVD sales of such dramas are so lucrative that they have catalyzed a landmark shift in how networks choose which series to produce.
For more than 30 years, network executives counted on the syndication of reruns to offset high production costs of new series. But to be successfully resold after its first showing on network TV, each hour or half-hour of a series had to be self-contained, so that the stations purchasing reruns could air them at any time.
Now network TV has a new revenue stream - one that is easier to manage and potentially worth far more than syndication. Fox's 24, for example, has sold more DVDs for a single season than any other drama in TV history - 1.05 million DVDs for Season One at a list price of $59.99.
In addition, viewers who watch a show for the first time on DVD may wind up becoming fans - watching the show each week and being counted by the A.C. Nielsen ratings service that establishes advertising rates.
"That's how I came to be a regular viewer of 24 - I watched the first three seasons on DVD, and then decided I wanted to see it every Monday night as soon as I could," Levinson says.
"Ultimately, I still prefer the DVD experience. It's much richer, like reading a book. I can watch just 10 minutes of an episode, or I can watch five episodes back to back. If I miss something, I can rewind and go back. But I watch first on Monday nights now."
The changes in how and when people watch television have spawned a much wider range of narrative possibilities. "The success of series like 24 has shown network executives and Hollywood producers that there is an audience via DVD, On Demand and iPod that wants to be challenged with the kind of complex storytelling that occasionally calls for a rewind," says University of Maryland professor and media historian Douglas Gomery.
"This is a golden age in terms of the kinds of stories for grown-ups that serialized TV drama is starting to tell."
This fall, the complexities and uncertainties of life after Sept. 11 provide the dominant theme in television. In show after show, the serialized format is being used to illuminate what programmers and media analysts describe as a post-9/11 mentality: a darker, more ambiguous view of life that acknowledges that the world can change in an instant.
That sensibility is suggested by many of the series' names. Fox's Vanished, which premieres tomorrow night, and NBC's Kidnapped, are season-long explorations of life after a loved one is kidnapped. CBS' Jericho deals with a small Kansas town after a nuclear disaster caused by terrorists destroys most of America.
"Kidnapped is about a cataclysmic event just like the plane crash in Lost, or, in real life, the attacks of 9/11," says Vivi Zigler, executive vice president of current primetime series for NBC, which has four serialized dramas this fall.
"I do think 9/11 has changed things. As a nation, we watched 9/11 play out over time, and we went through mourning and denial communally. I do think there is a sentiment now in viewers - not all viewers, and I don't mean to generalize or stereotype - but I do think there is a greater interest in consuming programs that make you feel that they are based in realism. Serialized drama is more analogous to the way life works. Your life doesn't stop and everything is neatly resolved at the end of a day."
While Eisner's Novick sees an "element of something dangerous" underlying the worldview of many of the new dramas, he also points out that a few grapple with society's interest, intensified by the events of 9/11, for a "certain kind of heroism" in which ordinary men and women manage to transcend a crisis. That, he says, is a direct attempt by network executives to air programs "that resonate with 9/11."
No serialized drama this fall is more transparent in that aspiration than NBC's Heroes, which throws its characters into unexpected situations in which they discover they possess a larger-than-life strength. In contemporary American society, Zigler says, the question of whether each individual has the stuff of heroism is one that was "crystallized by 9/11."
Yet on the eve of the new season, some network programmers express concern that they have scheduled too much of a good thing. "Are there just too many serialized dramas this fall for fans of the genre to commit to all of them?" Fox's Beckman wonders.
Even if only one or two of the new dramas succeed, as is often the case, television will have been made better by their arrival this fall, Levinson says.
"The great works in fiction, in literature, in poetry all have a profoundly ambiguous quality," the Fordham University professor adds. "These serialized dramas are more like that - much more ambiguous, much more true to life, much more adult and enriching."
Six new serial dramas:
Vanished (Fox) premieres at 9 p.m. Monday. The young wife of a U.S. senator disappears. Paired with Prison Break, it launches a new season of Monday night serialized thrillers on Fox.
Kidnapped (NBC) premieres at 10 p.m. Sept. 20. The teenage son of a wealthy couple is abducted. The pilot is available to subscribers of Netflix - and on Sept. 1 will be available online at NBC.com.
Jericho (CBS) premieres at 8 p.m. Sept. 20. Terror in the heartland. Residents of a small Kansas town battle nuclear disaster caused by a series of terrorist attacks.
Heroes (NBC) premieres at 9 p.m. Sept. 25. Average people suddenly discover extraordinary abilities. To attract young viewers, NBC offers free iPod downloads of the pilot beginning Sept. 1.
Runaway (CW) premieres at 9 p.m. Sept. 25. When Dad is falsely convicted, a middle-class family goes on the run. The Fugitive meets Running on Empty. Donnie Wahlberg and Leslie Hope star.
The Nine (ABC) premieres at 10 p.m. Oct. 4. The lives of nine hostages after their ordeal ends. Following Lost in the Wednesday night lineup, it is sure to be an early ratings winner.