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Net skeds facing a grim reality

Exec: '...it's hard to care about things that seem trivial in comparison'

This was supposed to be the week TV rolled out its star-studded lineup of fall series while honoring last season’s accomplishments at the Emmys.

Now, in light of last Tuesday’s terrorist attack on the U.S., the new season has been put on hold. Officially, things have been delayed for a week. In reality, nobody knows exactly when viewers will truly be ready to focus on the slew of new series programmers have planned.

“There’s been a huge shock to the collective consciousness,” NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf said. “Has the pause button been pushed, or have we erased the tape? I don’t know. I hope people will be ready on the 24th to sample new shows. But they may not be.”

Added another exec: “Right now, whether it’s the pennant race or a new TV series, it’s hard to care about things that seem trivial in comparison.”

The basic question for programmers is whether an extra week will provide enough of a buffer between the harsh reality of the outside world and the fantasy world served up in primetime.

CBS will test the waters a bit this week, offering up the series premiere of new drama “Wolf Lake” Wednesday and the season finale of “Big Brother 2” on Thursday. Late last week, Fox joined the other nets in pushing back its fall premieres until next week.

And come next Monday, auds may be fatigued by nearly two weeks of saturation coverage of the war on terrorism and thus ready for alternatives.

But if breaking news continues to disrupt viewing patterns, new shows may have a hard time finding and keeping an audience. What’s more, the horrific events of Sept. 11 will make some shows seem sillier than usual.

Getting hooked on high soap operatics, for example, may seem pointless for viewers worried about the world plunging into war.

“What could have been a hit a few weeks ago might not be now,” Metcalf said. “The psychology of the nation has changed.”

Shows on the spot

And then there’s the matter of all those cloak-and-dagger shows the nets are planning to launch: “The Agency,” “24,” “UC: Undercover,” “Alias.”

CBS has already said it will edit out references to terrorist Osama bin Laden from the pilot of “The Agency.” Fox may want to do the same with the “24” pilot, which includes a scene in which a terrorist blows up a jumbo jet.

It’s possible auds may flock to shows where the good guys triumph over evil, particularly if the nation heads to war. Equally possible is that viewers may be in no mood to watch fictionalized versions of what they’ve seen come to life so vividly in round-the-clock news coverage.

TV’s latenight talkshows might also have to alter their content in light of last week’s terrorist attacks. Jokes about current events — the staple of each host’s monologue — seem pretty inappropriate right now

That’s especially true for “Late Show” host David Letterman, “Late Night’s” Conan O’Brien and “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart, who all broadcast from Manhattan.

Letterman said Sunday that he would be on the air tonight with a show unlikely to feature much comedy. His CBS stablemate, Craig Kilborn, will return as well.

Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” along with “Late Night,” will return Tuesday on NBC. Leno’s first guest will be Arizona Sen. John McCain and rockers Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Celebrities might also not be in the mood to sit on stage and pitch their new movie or TV show. And when the topic inevitably turns to Tuesday’s tragedies, the latenight gabfests will probably take a dark tone.

Pinching pursestrings

Longer-term, the industry will also feel a serious economic pinch from last week’s events.

Hundreds of millions in ad revenue has been lost, with more to come in the weeks ahead. In an already tight economy, nets will probably be forced to make further cutbacks to budgets and staff.

“We’re going to have look even harder to save every dollar,” one senior network exec said. “There are going to be more layoffs.”

Creatively, network development execs think the terrorist attacks will have an immediate impact on the kinds of programs they will greenlight for the 2002-03 season.

A few pitches had already been made around town about projects set in an airport; net execs said they’re a little wary about doing anything regarding air travel at this point.

“There’s been a paradigm shift,” one insider said. “Viewers are going to be looking for different themes in their programs. The age of irony will be over. You’ll see more escapism, more warmth, more heroism, more patriotism.”

Even existing shows will likely feel the impact. Storylines once dismissed as implausible may not seem so ridiculous in a world where both towers of the World Trade Center can turn to rubble in the course of an hour.

“Every writer, every producer, every executive will be looking at the stories they tell through a different set of eyes,” one webhead said. “The world has changed, and that will affect how people tell stories. There are no boundaries now when it comes to evil and unpredictability. That’s going to color how people write.”

As for this season, industry insiders simply don’t know what to expect — except, perhaps, for the unexpected.

Some are optimistic that viewers will quickly grow tired of news coverage and seek out distractions through TV. “Everything’s going to be back to normal (this week),” one studio exec sunnily predicted.

A stronger core of insiders believes events will continue to overwhelm much of the first month of the TV season. And if the nation heads into a full-scale war, all bets are off.

“When push comes to shove and the spin starts going out on the ratings, there’s going to be an asterisk by this season,” one top programmer said.

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