Fall TV's bait and switch

The Baltimore Sun

Now you see it, now you don't. It's the new fall season on network TV, and it's a masterpiece in sleight-of-hand programming and hype.

Here is the hustle: Even though Fox and NBC have long ago announced that they were going to a new model of year-round programming that abandoned the decades-old big fall rollout of new shows, all the networks, those two included, are acting like there's a new fall season officially starting Sept. 21.

What they are hoping no one notices is that they have fewer than half the usual number of new series - and among that group there don't seem to be more than three or four possible keepers. Most wouldn't rate a midseason look under the old system that dates to the 1950s.

In a normal fall, the networks would have as many as 30 new scripted series. This year, they have 14 - that's 14 for CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and CW combined. And yet, they have managed to sell a full fall load of advertising totaling more than $9 billion through the end of the year by acting like it's a big, bright, shiny new fall. Talk about a new business model of doing more with less.

Last week at the Merrill Lynch Fall Preview, Leslie Moonves, CEO of the CBS Corp., admitted that even he was surprised by the strength of what the industry refers to as its upfront sales.

"Network is still the only game in town where you can aggregate a big audience," he said, while marveling at the vigor of network ad sales in the face of a troubled economy.

Moonves is the right choice to serve as industry pitchman for the fall season that isn't, since CBS has the most new shows: five. Of the three made available for preview, the sitcom Worst Week is the only that holds any promise.

The series stars Kyle Bornheimer as Sam Briggs, a well-intentioned young man who sets off to meet the parents of his pregnant fiancee, Mel Clayton (Erinn Hayes).

What follows is an endless series of mishaps with Briggs all but destroying his in-laws upper-middle class home. On screen, it plays like a one-joke, downscale knock-off of the film Meet the Parents.

And that is as good as it gets at CBS.

The big Fox fall series Fringe premiered last week to mixed reviews and modest ratings. The series boasts one of Hollywood's most creative producers in J.J. Abrams and a strong leading lady in Anna Torv as an FBI agent tracking international terrorists. But if this much-buzzed-about series is as good a new drama as the networks have to offer, the genre is doomed.

But at least Fox aspired to make a quality drama. NBC and ABC don't appear to even be trying this fall.

NBC has the sitcom Kath & Kim, about a mother who finds her adult daughter returning to the nest. With Molly Shannon and Selma Blair in the leads, there is some interest, but the network has yet to produce a screening copy of the pilot in advance of its Oct. 9 debut.

In the case of ABC, the network has declined to confirm whether it even has a pilot of its one new series Life on Mars, a drama about a modern-day detective who is hit by a car and transported back to 1973. Just as Kath & Kim is based on an Australian sitcom, this series is based on a classy British production of the same name.

But, again, critics have had no chance to screen Life on Mars, which makes its debut Oct. 9 - and it just might be the one series to generate some real excitement, given that it has Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli in leading roles.

Perhaps the best barometer of how little there has been to the new fall season is the fact that, so far, the network that has been the most impressive is the perennial also-ran CW. While most of the good ratings news has been generated by the return of the teen-hit Gos sip Girl, the freshman series 90210 has gotten off to a decent start as well.

In the end, the biggest attraction of the fall season for some fans will surely be the chance to re-connect with sophomore series that disappeared less than halfway into their run because of the Hollywood writers' strike.

There is genuine anticipation for the return of such series as Pushing Daisies (ABC), Samantha Who (ABC), Chuck (NBC) and Life (NBC).

While some network executives claim that the dearth of new programming is a result of the writers' strike and that things will look better next year, don't believe it. That, too, is part of the sales job.

In May, when NBC announced that it was moving to a year-round schedule and away from a strategy that put all of its eggs in a big fall basket, Mitch Metcalf, NBC's executive vice president of program planning and scheduling, said in a Sun interview: "After 50 years of doing business the same old way in network television, it's time to make a change."

What we are seeing this fall is the result of that landmark shift in the business of network television.

Don't despair, in less than four months American Idol will be back. Doesn't that make you feel better about network TV?

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