We're five weeks into the fall TV season and this is what we know: Not much.
The new hits? Hard to tell. Trends? Still emerging. Reality shows? Tanking - for now, anyway. And the failures? Plenty of those, but that's not news.
This really hasn't been the easiest year for the TV networks. That's not a sob story - it hasn't been an easy year for a lot of people - but TV programmers these days have to be as confused as anyone in America.
This fall, despite a generally decent crop of new shows - with exceptions ("Bob Patterson" anyone?) - and despite decent overall ratings, the networks, like a lot of American businesses, have troubles everywhere.
The thing is, however, TV overall is working just fine. Viewers are showing up, watching old favorites and relying on TV for news of war efforts and terrorism.
But as businesses, and as entertainment trend setters, the TV big dogs are generally running hard and generally getting nowhere. Or put another way, for every piece of good news, there is equally bad or baffling news, and the result is confusion and a steady drain on network wallets.
The networks were hurting financially after the Sept. 11 attacks - they went days without ads - and now the changed national mood seems to have affected viewing patterns.
Networks need new hits to make money, but viewers are stuck on the returning shows, and the theory - which makes as much sense as anything - is that people are comfortable these days with what they know and not particularly eager to embrace anything new. Another theory is that the new shows aren't so great after all.
In any case, it has left TV programmers guessing. They don't know whether their series will be permanently rejected, whether their old ones will stay strong, and whether reality TV is really kaput.
Given that general uncertainty, let's get to the things we do know:
- Most returning hits are doing just fine. "Friends," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "CSI" and "The West Wing" are back with big ratings.
There are other signs that familiar shows have become TV comfort food. Sherry Stringfield's return to "ER" was last week's top show, with nearly 27 million viewers. CBS's "JAG" - the only returning military series - ranks 11th for the season, its best ever. The battling clever Tuesday dramas, The WB's "Gilmore Girls" and now-UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," are both averaging more than 6 million viewers, strong ratings for the smaller nets. And most of the better-established comedies - "Frasier," "Will & Grace," even "Becker" - are drawing well overall.
- On the other hand, most new series, even the good ones, are barely causing a ripple in the pop culture pond.
Some shows do look to have solid futures, meaning they've been building audiences or performing well in their time slots, include NBC's "Scrubs" (ranked 28th in a competitive slot), CBS' "The Guardian" (19th), NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (24th), "Enterprise" ( 57th, a strong showing for UPN) and "Smallville" (64th and averaging almost 6 million, mostly younger, viewers, good numbers for The WB).
Other new series fall in the hard-to-tell category, including:
- "Alias," ABC's Sunday night double-secret spy show that's 38th for the season but should be higher, considering its hype.
- NBC's "Crossing Jordan," starring Jill Hennessy as a sexy but ticked-off coroner. It ranks 20th but each week draws a smaller audience.
- CBS' "Education of Max Bickford," ranked 29th. It got strong reviews but dwindles in the ratings each week, too.
- Fox's "Undeclared," the smart and charming half-hour about going to college, was picked up for the full season, but its ratings have been less than stellar (ranking 62nd).
- The WB's "Reba" appears to be working for the mini-network, averaging about 4.4 million viewers and good demographics, but its Friday night WB colleagues, "Raising Dad" and "Maybe It's Me," are marginal at 3.7 million and 3.1 million, respectively, although The WB did pick up all three for the full season.
As it is every year, the list of losers is long. It includes CBS' "Danny" (canceled), "Ellen" (at 81st, probably headed for cancellation), "Thieves" (69th, please cancel), and "Wolf Lake" (repeatedly pre-empted, ranking 75th and just plain goofy).
NBC's mistakes include "Emeril" (68th), "Inside Schwartz" (this year's Thursday night disaster, it lost 10 million viewers from lead-in "Friends" last week) and "UC: Undercover" (53rd), TV's dullest new show trying to be cool.
Fox's "Pasadena," a layered, clever mystery/soap, is getting barely 4.2 million viewers, probably a sign that prime-time soaps still won't work, or maybe viewers just don't have the patience right now.
There are more, like The WB's awful Sunday night comedies "Men, Women & Dogs" and "Off Centre" (ranked 105 and 109), but what's the point of even bringing them up? ABC is hurting worse than anyone. After relying on four showings of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" last season - three ending in the Top 10 - ABC has suffered as the game show dropped into the mid-40s rankings. Plus, ABC has no new successes ("Alias" is its highest-ranking new show), and its already-tired comedies like "Dharma & Greg" and "Spin City" are listing badly and barely in the Top 50.
ABC has already put its current reality series, "Mole 2," on hiatus after a dismal early season (it ranked 89th), and it stopped production indefinitely on "The Runner," the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck produced cross-country chase show for midseason that was going to save ABC.
That brings up the next point.
- Reality is hurting. Last year's top show, "Survivor," is drawing good but no-longer-phenomenal numbers. It's ranked seventh for the season, but it's the only reality or game show in the Top 40. CBS' "The Amazing Race," for instance, heralded as the next hot thing, is 60th and gone from public notice.
That cheering sound is from the purists who grumbled that reality TV is cheap (it is), trashy (often) and a sign of falling morals (get a grip). But network programmers, for nearly two years now, have been counting on games and reality series like "Survivor," "Millionaire" and "Temptation Island" for supercharged ratings and hefty profits.
Those frivolous days apparently are over. If people didn't watch Fox's "Love Cruise," a lightweight exercise in harmless cheesiness, you have to start wondering what we've come to as a country. Possibly, we've turned our brains back on.
The fall of reality is more than just a changing American mood. The first requirement to be a TV programmer is to have the talent to spot new trends, then to quickly and thoroughly run them into the ground.
Reality shows were relatively inexpensive, and only a year ago felt new and interesting. After more than two dozen have run across our screens, how many more vote-offs or inept alliances can we take? That doesn't mean reality is gone. "Survivor" is a well-conceived, well-produced show, and it is likely to remain strong, if not dominant, for a while. Some other new, high-quality reality series with the right tone and feel is as likely to connect as any drama or comedy.
The thing about TV is that nothing ever really dies. Genres fade, styles go away for a while, series get canceled. But something similar always comes back.
The problem, however, is that the nets were counting on the reality revenue now.
The Sept. 11 attacks, according to reports, cost the networks together $400 million to $500 million in lost advertising revenue from the commercial-free days that followed, and ad spending continues to be down.
Plus, the major networks are approximately a combined $100 million over budget already on their news reporting of the war, and their red ink is growing steadily, industry analysts and network officials have said.
All this follows another revenue problem the networks faced when they announced their lineups in May, the first chance the nets have to sell ad time for the fall.
This first round of ad sales was dismal - as much as a $1 billion dip from the previous year - and the networks hoped to make up that loss with a hike in ad rates from a strong season.
Instead, they got a strange season, one that is likely to continue changing but not necessarily making them money. The only sure thing now, apparently, is that the Emmys are back on. Unless they get canceled again.
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