Ancient rituals die hard - and often ugly. That's what is happening this week in New York as TV networks dutifully repeat the steps they have danced for half a century as part of their annual upfront sales presentations of their new fall seasons.
Only there isn't going to be much of a new fall season come September, because the smart money in network TV has already moved on - in the direction of a 52-week programming model pioneered by Rupert Murdoch and Fox. In fact, this fall, viewers are going to see fewer new series and less change than at any time since the earliest days of network prime-time TV in the late 1940s and '50s.
"The TV season as we used to know it doesn't really exist any more, so there is no benefit in opening a ton of shows in September and then dropping most of them and keeping only a few - it's bad business," says Douglas Gomery, author of A Broadcasting History of the United States.
"While the networks are going through the motions of an upfront presentation to advertisers this week, everybody knows that the game they've been played for 40 or 50 years is over. Have they announced anything new for the fall that is going to get anybody excited?"
Indeed, ABC yesterday announced only one new scripted series for fall, Life on Mars, about a detective (Jason O'Mara) who is hit by a car and thrown back in time. And, the ABC show, which will air in the plum time slot of 10 p.m. Thursdays after Grey's Anatomy, is a remake of a similarly titled BBC series.
"Very simply, the big fact to take away from where we are is that we have a fairly stable schedule," ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson said yesterday, sounding a theme common to several broadcast executives trying to put a favorable spin on relatively unchanged lineups that have lost as much as one-sixth of their audiences year to year.
No network has struggled as badly as the CW, which announced only two new scripted series - 90210, a remake of the 1990s youth drama Beverly Hills, 90210, and Surviving the Filthy Rich, a sitcom about a tutor to a pair of overindulged teenage twins. (Last week, the last-place broadcaster outsourced its entire Sunday night real estate for fall to an independent studio to program as it sees fit.)
CBS, down 16 percent in viewership from last year, will announce today that it has ordered three new dramas. Eleventh Hour, a series about super scientists, will air Thursdays after CSI starting in the fall.
Viewers might have to wait until midseason for the others: The Mentalist, starring Simon Baker as a detective with sixth sense, and The Ex List, a remake of an Israeli series about a young woman who hunts former boyfriends.
Tomorrow, TV's highest-rated network, Fox, is expected to announce a new series from J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias): Fringe, made in the mold of the network's groundbreaking drama, The X-Files. Fox is the network that broke the mold for TV seasons by going to year-round scheduling in 2003 with a summer debut for The O.C. - and an annual January start for TV's most popular show, American Idol.
NBC, meanwhile, held its upfront five weeks ago, announcing that it, too, would schedule 52 weeks a year - and drastically downsize its fall rollout.
"After 50 years of doing business the same old way in network television, it's time to make a change," Mitch Metcalf, NBC's executive vice president of program planning and scheduling said in a Sun interview explaining the switch.
"It's past time - the change is overdue," said Gomery, a University of Maryland media economist. "Rupert Murdoch went to a year-round schedule five years ago, and now everyone is catching up. There are too many options in the new On-Demand media world for people to wait from May to September to see a new show."
A sampler of new fall series:
Eleventh Hour (science drama from producer Jerry Bruckheimer)
Fringe (producer J.J. Abrams revists The X-Files genre)
Life on Mars (remake of BBC drama about a cop sent back in time)
Knight Rider (remake of the 1980s talking-car series)
90210 (spinoff of the 1990s Fox hit Beverly Hills, 90210)