Stars face ‘Survivor’ challenge

Star-driven skeins dot new tube landscape

After a summer of tribal councils and final answers, network television’s ready to get back into the business of shows– the kind with scripts and stars and no promise of a million-dollar payoff.

While the phenomenal success of “Survivor” and the continued strong performance of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” may yet usher in a new era of non-fiction, for the fall, at least, traditional comedies and dramas remain the rice and tapioca of the major networks’ primetime diet. Indeed, of the 31 new programs slated to bow on the Bix Six over the next few months, none can be classified as anything remotely resembling alternative programming.

If anything, the nets seem to be playing it safe this fall.

Big stars are in abundance, with well-known movie and TV thesps such as Bette Midler, Geena Davis, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Richards, John Goodman, Craig T. Nelson, Oliver Platt and Delta Burke all toplining shows. Such reliance on star-power is often (though not always) a sign of weak series development.

Some shows take chances: Goodman plays a gay dad in Fox’s “Normal, Ohio”; NBC’s “Titans” will try to revive the primetime adult soap, a genre that hasn’t worked on one of the Big Four nets in years. Most freshmen contenders, however, feature setups so conventional — hard-driving police commisioner shakes up city; caring doctor fights for patients — they might as well have aired in 1990.

But even if the new series are standard-issue, the 2000-01 season promises to be anything but:

  • NBC’s broadcast of the Sydney Olympics has pushed back the official start of the season until Oct. 2. A series of planned presidential debates, combined with the usual chaos caused by post-season baseball, means some shows won’t get off the ground til November.

    “There’s no question that it’s going to be more challenging for people to get shows up and running this years,” says Fox Television Entertainment Group topper Sandy Grushow.

  • The twin threats of strikes by writers and actors won’t disrupt this season, but the mere potential of such labor strife has already cast a pall over the TV industry. Webs are pushing producers to churn out extra episodes of programs now for use next fall; some are even planning to greenlight new series now for broadcast in fall 2001. As stressed-out producers and scribes struggle to meet network demands, the pressure to produce could conceivably impact the quality of this season’s episodes.

  • With CBS now officially part of the Viacom family, vertical integration will have an even greater influence on how programming and scheduling decisions are made. Networks are expected to be more inclined than ever to pull the plug early on borderline shows in which they have no strong ownership stake, particularly now that they can replace the laggard program with a cheap reality format.

“The cost of failure is higher than ever, and it’s more difficult to maximize your return on a successful show,” says 20th Century Fox TV co-prexy Gary Newman, citing network demands for co-ownership of programs and perpetual license fees that prevent a studio from making up its deficits on a series in its latter years.

  • After years of talking about it, the networks finally seem ready to embrace the concept of year-round programming. Winter premieres of shows such as “Providence,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Becker” prove that midseason is a great time to launch a new series; likewise, “Survivor,” “Millionaire,” and to a lesser extent, “Big Brother,” have demonstrated that original summer series can make economic sense. Already, some of the networks are saving some of their most high-profile projects of the year (ABC’s “Damon,” Fox’s “X-Files” spinoff “The Lone Gunmen”) for winter or spring.

    It’s the post-Super Bowl premiere of “Survivor II: The Australian Outback,” however, that promises to be the TV event of the season — and that says a lot about the state of network television right now.

    Scripted series programming is far from dead, but it is perilously close to snagging a spot on the endangered species list. When the finale of “Survivor” captures more viewers than any single fictional work of TV that aired during the 1999-00 season, auds are sending a clear message: The old school doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

    “It’s a fundamental shift in television,” says Studios USA production topper David Kissinger. “People have a hard time suspending disbelief. What they’re telling us is, We don’t want the same old crap anymore.’ People want to watch TV to connect with other people.”

    UPN topper Dean Valentine believes “Survivor’s” success portends a move away from an era dominated by comfort food programming that’s available week in, week out.

    “We’ve moved to an event-driven medium, almost like the British model,” he says, noting that the events don’t necessarily have to be reality-based.

    “It’s about limited series with high impact. This season will be dominated by that.”

    Indeed, this season more than ever, freshman series will be under intense pressure to perform. Shows that don’t show early signs of clicking with viewers are likely to be shelved quickly to make room for one of the many wacky non-fiction projects in the works for midseason, like NBC’s “Chains of Love” (four guys are literally attached to one woman for several days) or ABC’s “The Runner” (a contestant is made the object of a nationwide manhunt, and viewers are given the chance to nab ’em.”)

    “It’s going to be harder to argue to keep a show on the air when it’s not performing as well as a reality program (which costs much less to produce),” says NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier. “You have to find ways to bring down the cost of your schedule.”

    Industry insiders don’t believe traditional comedies and dramas will cease to exist, if only because the backend financial rewards on a successful entertainment series are so huge.

    Says talent agent Rick Rosen of Endeavor: “In the end, there’s nothing better for a network or studio than a successful narrative show.”

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