Primetime adds some new wrinkles

IN THE CULT SCI-FI classic “The Omega Man,” Charlton Heston is a lone surviving adult male surrounded by a virally infected horde of homicidal mutants.

In the primetime season to come, men that have sped past age 55 — and thus beyond any desired advertising demographic — occupy positions of authority, provided that fit and beautiful young associates surround them.

This might sound wispy as trends go, but lesser coincidences have been cited in the sleuthing for cultural clues that annually follows TV’s upfront announcements.

Consider that Ted Danson (ABC’s “Help Me Help You”), James Woods (CBS’ “Shark”), John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor (NBC’s “20 Good Years”) and Victor Garber (Fox’s “Justice”) are all at the center of new programs strewn among the major nets. In the search for grownups, they join James Caan of “Las Vegas”; “24’s” Gregory Itzin and Jean Smart — whose feminine wiles helped topple a president; and the cast of “Boston Legal,” where James Spader is a relative whippersnapper, William Shatner wins Emmys, Tom Selleck romanced a still-pretty-ravishing Candice Bergen, and Betty White is a serial murderess.

SCORE IT AS A SMALL VICTORY, actually, that those outside the 18-49 demographic have found any toehold in primetime, even if the central males usually lack female companionship in their peer group.

At the least, the faintest recognition that getting older doesn’t mean gumming yogurt — and that coveted young adults might watch someone dad’s age if he has something compelling to say — represents progress. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that baby boomers (some with names like Moonves, Freston and Iger) run the show not just in Hollywood but in the business world in general.

The main disclaimer, of course, is that in order to render such programs palatable, the perception is the aforementioned stars must be flanked by the young and restless. Indeed, the only new show that dares make age an issue is “20 Good Years,” which derives its title from how long the Lithgow character surmises that he and pal Tambor have left to enjoy life and raise some hell.

In addition, the news for women at first glance remains bleak, as May-September is still the romantic order of the day — hardly a news flash in movies or TV, whether it was Cary Grant romancing Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest” or Sean Connery wooing Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Entrapment.”

Dr. Martha Lauzen, a communications professor at San Diego State U., has regularly studied TV roles by age and gender and found remarkably little variance over the last decade, with women over 40 accounting for only about 12% of all primetime roles and men accounting for nearly 80% of characters in their 50s. So despite examples such as Bergen or Lena Olin’s sultry, ass-kicking mom on “Alias,” Lauzen said, “If the past is any predictor of the future, I wouldn’t expect much change this season.”

Time will tell, but after years when the prevailing wisdom seemed to dictate that every cast must resemble “Friends” circa 1995, any deviation is noteworthy.

In another Heston epic, he delivers his tribe 10 guiding rules to live by. In mediaspeak, there is an unspoken 11th TV commandment: “If thou must grow older, try to be a man about it.”

SPEAKING OF RULES, with the upfronts in the rearview mirror and apologies to Bill Maher, it’s time for some new ones governing these events:

  • No more bringing talent onstage without the foggiest idea what they’re going to say. They’re actors. If you’re not going to give them a script, outfit them with those devices used to page restaurant patrons when the table’s ready and have it secretly buzz in 30 seconds.

  • No one should be allowed to “thank” their boss for (usually his) support. Being boss is reward enough.

  • The fourth-place network can no longer announce its schedule first, since said network (in this case, NBC) is apt to shuffle the deck in response to everybody else’s moves.

  • No presentation should run longer than the movie “Network,” which clocked in at 121 minutes — and that includes the half-hour required to clear security.

  • Executives may not spend time filming elaborate taped pieces or learning to ballroom dance until they have developed one legitimate-looking hit comedy.

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