Net clones ‘Lost’ in transition

B'casters pass on ripping off hits, look to uniqueness

HOLLYWOOD — Where are all the “Desperate Housewives” clones?

It’s Network TV 101: Success breeds imitation. “CSI” spawned a whole procedural drama industry. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” launched a thousand gameshows. And the weight of so many bad “Friends” ripoffs nearly killed the entire sitcom genre.

Given its megahit status, “Housewives” should have triggered a fall season brimming with suburban mischief and quirky sudsers. Yet, nothing.

“One of the things that surprised me this year is there weren’t 27 ‘Desperate Housewives’ ripoffs,” CBS topper Leslie Moonves mused in May, as he unveiled a schedule free of any Susan Mayer replicas or Bree Van de Kamp wannabes.

It wasn’t for lack of trying.

Several scripts were handed in with a similar vibe, but just two pilots could even remotely be considered vaguely inspired by the success of “Housewives”: ABC developed the hourlong “Soccer Moms,” about suburban moms who moonlight as private eyes, and CBS ordered the pilot “The Commuters,” about three couples in the New York ‘burbs.

But even in those cases, “The Commuters” was originally developed pre-“Housewives,” while “Soccer Moms” wasn’t a “Housewives”-style soap opera.

One studio exec places part of the reason on timing. When the September launch of “Housewives” rolled around, the nets and studios had already figured out which direction their development was heading — and the tremendous success of “Housewives” caught everyone off guard.

“Development season starts in July,” he says. “People had already committed to pilots, to writing scripts. By the time it was a hit, it was too late.”

Others argue it’s simply an acknowledgement that the writing and casting on shows like “Housewives” are virtually impossible to duplicate — so why even try, knowing that viewers are too savvy and the press too unforgiving when handed a pale imitation of their favorite show.

Paramount Network TV prexy David Stapf, meanwhile, believes the networks did take the lessons of “Housewives” and fellow hit “Lost” to heart — just in more productive ways than simply ripping them off.

“It allowed people to try to develop things that weren’t currently on the air,” Stapf says. “After all, ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Lost’ worked well and were able to break out of the pack because they were unique. That’s how many of the networks were looking at it.”

Stapf believes that’s how so many supernatural-themed shows are making it to air this fall (WB’s “Supernatural,” ABC’s “The Night Stalker” and “Invasion,” CBS’ “Ghost Whisperer” and “Threshold,” NBC’s “Fathom”). Contrary to popular belief, these aren’t “Lost” clones — but, rather, attempts to fill the spookfest and sci-fi voids.

Meanwhile, on the comedy side, nets burned by the “Friends” clone-a-thon are less interested in copying the more recent generation of hits. Hence, no “Two and a Half Men” facsimiles.

“Instead of mimicking what they’re doing so successfully, we’re looking for new ideas and voices,” says Touchstone comedy VP Alex Weinberger.

Still, old habits die hard. As “CSI” continues to pop for CBS, the studios and networks are still developing and airing every possible version of procedural crime drama.

“There are still ways to fool yourself into thinking that ‘ours will be different or better,’ ” one exec sheepishly admits.

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