Webs’ bland ambition

Fall shows aim for critical mass rather than critical approval

Earlier this summer, ABC topper Lloyd Braun summed up the Alphabet’s fall programming strategy by saying he would “leave the groundbreaking to someone else.”

He’s not alone.

They’d never admit it, but in offices all over Hollywood and Burbank, Braun’s Big Six colleagues were silently nodding their heads in approval.

After spending the past few years trying to come up with critical home runs — think “SportsNight,” “Undeclared,” “EZ Streets” or “Freaks and Geeks” — webheads have realized they work in broadcast TV, not HBO. With the small-screen economy still on the ropes, there simply isn’t room for Albrecht envy on Network Row.

The result: a fall season marked by meat-and-potatoes programming, catered by Swanson’s rather than Spago. Gritty and edgy are out; retro and wholesome are in.

“The networks are unwilling to rock the boat creatively right now,” says TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “A year ago, there was all this cool stuff happening on network television, like ‘Alias,’ ’24,’ ‘Bernie Mac,’ even ‘Smallville.’ But this year, the networks don’t seem to be taking risks. And when they do, like with (ABC’s) ‘Push, Nevada,’ there’s no conceivable way it’s ever going to work.”

Endeavor Agency partner Richard Weitz, who’s already busy packaging next fall’s prospective hits, says nets have been very clear about what they want.

“It’s back to basics, back to family shows, back to private investigators,” he says. “Titles are being brought back in TV just like the movie business is adapting older titles and making them new.”

It’s not that this year’s crop of newcomers completely lacks quality or distinction.

NBC’s “Boomtown” and the Eye’s “Robbery Homicide Division” are among a handful of frosh skeins already generating critical kudos. (Both also speak to the season’s other big trend: crime dramas are omnipresent.)

What’s more, even uncomplicated shows such as Fox’s “Fastlane” or ABC’s “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” are well produced and feature well-regarded thesps.

But with hits harder to come by than ever, execs generally believe they have more to gain by playing it safe rather than swinging for the fences.

Over the past few years, “The networks have tried to make little films that appeal mostly to critics,” says NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker. “But that didn’t appeal to audiences, and you always have to remember who your audience is. And the audience is not necessarily looking for the same things critics are looking for.”

In a reversal of tradition, it’s the networks most in need of ratings gains — ABC and Fox — that are spending the most time pitching down the middle this fall.

While Nielsen laggards used to have the biggest creative cojones, figuring they had nothing to lose, today’s TV economy makes risk-taking tougher than ever.

“It’s not that networks don’t want to take chances,” says Fox Broadcasting sked guru Preston Beckman, whose fall lineup includes ambitious dramas like “Firefly” and “John Doe.”

“But we’re in this bazillion-channel world, and we’re putting a lot of money down (for new shows.) We need to be a little more certain in our bets. Risk is good, but only if you’ve also covered your bases with some meat-and-potatoes programming.”

In addition, it’s becoming almost impossible to score decent Nielsen numbers for repeats of serialized (and critically adored) skeins like “Ed” or the now-dead “Once and Again.”

“That’s why you’re seeing more episodic shows and more doctor-and-lawyer shows,” Beckman says. “They repeat far better than serialized or character-driven shows.”

CBS prexy and CEO Leslie Moonves understands the dilemma of nets like ABC and Fox.

“It’s easier to take swings at the fences when you know one half-hour or hour isn’t make or break,” he says. “Once you have your foundation laid, it’s easier to put something on that’s further away from your base.”

In any case, Moonves believes words like “edgy” and “out of the box” are overused in Hollywood.

“Sometimes there’s too much emphasis on breaking the mold,” he argues. “It should always be about quality, not concept. It’s blocking and tackling (that produces Nielsen victory.)”

Critics like Roush, however, worry about networks churning out too many by-the-numbers franchises and ignoring shows with the potential to build truly passionate audiences.

“How is it good for network television if we move toward programming so bland and generic, it doesn’t matter if we’ve seen last week’s episode?” he asks. “You’re going to continue to push people away from network TV if you don’t give them something to really care about.”

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