TV dramatic turnaround

Broadcast TV is cool again.

You can feel it in watercooler conversations and see it in ratings data. Kids are clicking onto Web sites or downloading to their i-Pods to catch up on episodes they missed. Foreign stations are lining up to buy the fall season’s likely new hits.

In short, cable shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Shield” have arguably peaked; the buss is back on the Big Four broadcasters.

Ironically, feature film producers can’t seem to fashion serious dramas that entice mainstream auds to the moviehouses. But the efforts of TV producers in the genre are impressive: There’s not a clunker among the newcomer drama series this fall.

As a result, the mood among the Big Four webheads is decidedly improved since the turn of the new millennium.

Demoralized net execs groused then about the inroads HBO had made and fretted about young auds finding better things to do with their time. NBC was about to lose its powerhouse Thursday-night comedy block; ABC was in freefall; CBS’s demos were hoary; Fox had no “Idol.”

In 1999, a phalanx of network toppers visited Variety’s offices and argued to reporters and editors that they were still relevant and that they were hard at work trying to figure out their evolving business models.

I can’t imagine such a defensive posture today.

Admittedly, webheads are never really out of the woods — their tenures are generally short, and they still haven’t finessed the new economic paradigm — but they have put a lot of the bad vibes behind them.

As is often the case, and the reason the biz is such a crapshoot, webheads didn’t immediately zero in on the winners to date among this season’s frosh fare — think “Ugly Betty” and “Heroes” rather than “Studio 60” or “Kidnapped.” But overall they placed enough good bets to breathe easy.

Almost every drama series worth its salt looks and feels like a movie, whether it’s a returning procedural like “CSI: Miami” (whose every shot is a visual stunner) or newcomers like “Smith” and “Vanished” (whose action sequences are as exciting as anything in “X-Men” or “MI:3”) or “Friday Night Lights” (whose sensitivities are as acute as those in, say, “Brokeback Mountain”).

OK, the studios behind these series (often belonging to the same conglom as the network) spent an arm and a leg on this season’s pilots ($5 million-$6 million in some cases) but network license fees are still relatively stable at about $2 million. What has to happen to make this equation work: New media outlets have to become revenue drivers within the next three or four years.

On another front, reality formats seem to finally have found their proper role on the schedules, neither overwhelming nor souring the tone of each evening. “Dancing With the Stars” has sashayed into a bonafide hit for ABC while “Deal or No Deal” has given the Peacock something to strut about.

Not that everything is hunky-dory.

The lack of sitcom sizzlers that can hold their own into syndication is still a worry. Though no one wants to say it out loud, neither “My Name Is Earl” nor “The Office,” let alone any of this fall’s newcomers, is a sure successor to “Friends” or “Frasier.”

Thus, the real money in TV is still being minted by second- and third-cycle reruns of “Seinfeld,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Friends.” — and from sales of those shows on DVD.

The latter comedy has apparently racked up some $800 million in homevid revenue. (And that’s not counting whatever boxed set Warners puts out this Christmas.)

The big question: Now that dramas are doing so well in primetime, who’s going to find the magic touch in sitcoms — and laugh all the way to the bank?

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