Originally created 08/04/06

It's going to be a great TV season, really



LOS ANGELES - In an instructive number from the musical "Chicago," a lawyer gives a song-and-dance demonstration of how he persuades jurors to acquit patently guilty clients.

"Give 'em the old razzle-dazzle, razzle-dazzle 'em," Billy the attorney belts out. "... Give 'em the old flim-flam flummox, fool and fracture 'em. How can they hear the truth above the roar?"

If it works for the defense, why not for television networks? After a couple weeks of programming chiefs presenting their fall schedules to reporters, it's clear the "Chicago" strategy is in play.

Win the hearts and minds of those attending the twice-yearly Television Critics Association meeting, the reasoning goes, and maybe audiences will follow. It's a tap dance that puts executives on the spot and on the record.

"'In "Four Kings,' I think we found four young actors that struck an instant chemistry," NBC's Kevin Reilly said in January. Then there was "Conviction," a drama that's "sexy and it's character-based and it has an incredible cast of fresh faces," he said.

Both of those shows were for NBC's midseason schedule. Both were convicted of low ratings and sentenced to oblivion.

A then-executive with the WB network used last January meeting's to tout the value of "Pepper Dennis" and "The Bedford Diaries" as part of the network's Big Momentum. The shows are goners and the network will be too: It's merging with another also-ran, UPN, to form the new CW.

Such unfounded optimism is a grand tradition, which in TV means it goes back more than a season. In July 1994, then Fox President Sandy Grushow sang the praises of "Wild Oats": "It's loud, it's outrageous, it's sexy and we believe it's very funny." It lasted less than a month.

What's the lesson? For viewers, it's to at least beware of shows billed as sexy. For networks, there is no option but to keep feeding the publicity machine.

At the just-concluded critics' summer session, CBS' Nina Tassler took a broad-brush approach to attempted media hypnosis.

"There is a tremendous amount of effort and energy put into storytelling, quality of storytelling, innovative new forms. And star power is big. I mean, we have an extraordinary roster of television and feature stars on the air this year," she said.

Ditto NBC.

"We are going to be a challenger in many time periods and, most importantly, I believe we have new series that will emerge as amongst the best on television," Reilly said.

The once proud peacock, trying to climb out of last season's fourth-place ratings hole, also tried a "we present the programs, you decide if they're any good" method of winning over the press.

"As the pilots have been circulating around I've been very excited to see the buzz building and to get positive feedback from many of you in this room, which I appreciate," Reilly said.

Fox's Peter Liguori chose micro over macro.

"Vanished," he said, is an "intense drama that combines the action of '24' with the urgency of 'Prison Break.'"

"Standoff," he said, is an "exciting" drama about two crisis negotiators "who make a fantastic team professionally and an extremely fiery team personally.... it's that unique combination of action and drama with humor and romance that really sets this show apart."

(Series executive producers tend toward more measured pronouncements: "I worked on 'CSI' for six years before coming here.... I think I learned how to craft a mystery," said Josh Berman, an executive producer on "Vanished.")

One executive had to do heavy-lifting in promoting the new CW and had her adjectives ready.

"We have to look different. We've developed a vibrant, energetic, cool branding campaign that celebrates our viewers' individuality, letting them know that they're free to be, well, whatever they want to be," Dawn Ostroff said of the CW - which aims to appeal to young adults.

"I think that ultimately we'll wind up with more viewers than either (WB or UPN)," Ostroff said. "It's going to take us time in the beginning to get everybody in the house... But I do believe that as the years go on, we will wind up with stronger ratings."

Hmmm. What historic proclamation does that recall?

"If we execute well I feel comfortable that we'll be here. There are no structural reasons why we can't succeed," then WB chief executive Jamie Kellner said at the network's birth in 1994, when he was asked about the network's chance for survival.

Do some shows, or even networks, live up to their hype? Of course; consider the first season of "Desperate Housewives." The Fox network, which Kellner also helped build, will mark its 20th anniversary in October.

But if you want to know what a network really thinks you've got to be patient. CBS' Tassler came clean, more or less, in January when asked if "Threshold" could ever resurface.

"Unfortunately the show just never reached its creative potential, so I think we said bye-bye."