The rich, and Rather, are different

A look at TV drama past, present and future

Before the onslaught of analysis judging how the networks have done with the 27 series being introduced this fall, here are three not-to-be-overlooked takes on the new TV season — past, present and future…

Past: Whatever the outcome of Dan Rather’s lawsuit against CBS, some revisionist history has seeped into the discussion surrounding those events — beginning with any sense Rather was sitting pretty before the disputed “60 Minutes” report that torpedoed his reputation and eventually triggered his departure.

Far from that, Rather had been mired in third place for years — a situation that didn’t sit well with CBS brass. Moreover, as the anchor’s troubles mounted over the story about President Bush’s National Guard service (or lack thereof), NBC was carefully orchestrating a long-planned baton pass from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams that finally took place in December 2004, putting a shiny new face in the anchor chair just as fretting about the aging news audience was reaching a fever pitch.

The truth is execs had hoped Rather — the eldest of the three anchors who took root in the 1980s — would step aside on his own, as Brokaw had done, sparing the network the PR nightmare of elbowing out a broadcast news icon and allowing CBS to engineer its own let’s-get-younger makeover.

Then again, Rather knew something about that uncomfortable scenario. As the late ABC News prexy Roone Arledge recounted in his autobiography, he ardently wooed Rather in the ’80s hoping to either land him or force CBS News to prod Walter Cronkite toward premature retirement — a win for ABC, Arledge figured, whichever way the situation panned out.

In that context, the Bush flap prior to Rather’s announced exit from “The CBS Evening News” helm in November 2004 provided CBS with a timely excuse to initiate a transition — and even then, the newsman was given four additional months to ease out of the anchor chair.

And that’s the way it was.

Present: Speaking of the aging news audience, what’s with all the money being spent on newspaper ads to launch the new TV season?

Granted, given all the bad news that’s assailed the newspaper industry, it’s nice for everybody working in print to see old gray ladies receiving a shot in the arm and vote of confidence. Even so, it’s hard to fathom the splashy, full-page, occasionally downright irritating ads the major networks have draped all over the New York Times and Los Angeles Times this week like little ink-stained shawls.

As anyone following newspapers’ woes can testify, younger people aren’t reading them much anymore, as more and more of them garner their news and information online. Based on that, the logic seems questionable — other than perhaps sheer force of habit — for youth-obsessed, demographic-touting, only-adults-18-to-49-counts broadcasters to justify sinking sizable resources into a medium where the readership is so heavily 50-plus.

Future: OK, the very near future, which will answer just how viable class distinctions are as the spine of a primetime lineup.

Prominently positioned behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and its spinoff “Private Practice,” ABC’s new hours “Big Shots” and “Dirty Sexy Money” each lustily plunge into the fabulous, screwed-up, opulent, adulterous lives of the filthy rich. And while “Practice’s” tofu-eating doctors (hey, it is Santa Monica) don’t flaunt their incomes, the beachside addresses and snazzy cars indicate they’re in no danger of imminent foreclosure, even if their love lives are an utter mess.

The timing of these shows is especially interesting, with growing unease about the U.S. economy and a polarized political environment where Democrats are pressing to roll back tax cuts while Republicans accuse them of fomenting class hostility with a “soak the rich” mentality.

ABC appears to be wagering on a resurgence of 1980s-style escapism garnished with dumpster diving, using drama to offer an illicit glimpse behind the velvet-roped exteriors and bring back the Reagan-era heyday of “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” (CBS has placed a more modest bet with the family soap “Cane,” though don’t be surprised if the family reunites with cousin Olivier, a forensic criminologist, at the first sign of ratings trouble.)

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, the rich “are different from you and me,” to which a Hemingway character famously replied, “Yes, they have more money.”

On ABC, anyway, they also get better timeslots. Let’s see what they can do with them.

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