Fanciful fare, not crime, highlight lineups

As they confronted a business that is dealing with ever-changing technologies and viewer habits, TV honchos at the upfront presentations last week were wondering: Is this the year everything changes?

Actually, it’s becoming clear that every year is the year everything changed.

Keeping up with the altered landscape has become a bigger upfront sport than trying to discern the networks’ schedules, which grow less important every year.

On a superficial level, Brits are hot — both as thesps (usually with Yank accents, however, like “Bionic Woman” star Michelle Ryan) and as formats (“Viva Laughlin,” “The IT Crowd”). Also, San Francisco is the city where everybody wants to be (“Journeyman,” “Women’s Murder Club”) and series about angst-ridden ensembles (“Lipstick Jungle,” “Big Shots”) are in.

And then there are the five trends that could have a major impact on TV viewing this fall:

Procedurals disappear with little trace: Call “CSI,” because it looks like someone stuck a bullet in the decade’s pre-eminent drama genre.

Jerry Bruckheimer failed to get a new show on the air, while Dick Wolf managed to get all three “Law & Order” skeins picked up, but with one migrating to cable.

With a slew of high-concept actioners, quirky thrillers and sexy sudsers hitting the air, is there still room for a good ol’ fashioned by-the-books show about finding a bad guy?

ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson notes that viewers aren’t as hot for dark themes as they were a few years ago.

“I look at the three shows that were breakout from last year — ‘Heroes,’ ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘Brothers and Sisters,’ ” McPherson says. “They’re all escapism in different ways.”

Still, the genre’s hardly stiffened. Procedurals like “CSI,” its spinoffs and others like “Criminal Minds” still dominate the CBS schedule. Several of the new character-based dramas (NBC’s “Life,” CBS’ “Moonlight”) are balanced out with a crime procedural backbone.

And even ABC is finally getting into the act, scheduling the femme-centric “Women’s Murder Club” whodunit.

“We were looking for a procedural, and last year none of them made the cut,” says McPherson, who redoubled his efforts to find one as a result. “As part of the mix, your overall bounty, you want to have some procedurals and some serialized shows.”

Network Row becomes Fantasy Island: After going dark and moody last year, nets are loading up on fanciful fare, much of it with sci-fi tinges. And while you’d expect to find such shows on, say, Fox or the CW, something’s clearly in the water when CBS decides to make the lead character in its latest crime caper a vampire.

At least nine new hours feature out-there themes, from time travel (“Journeyman”) to superheroes (“Bionic Woman,” “Chuck”). There’s a show with a lead who can raise the dead (“Pushing Daisies”), one with a character who’s been dead for a very long time (“Moonlight”) and another about someone who goes after the souls of the dead for Satan (“Reaper”).

Other shows skirting scientific principles include “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (a continuation of the “Terminator” franchise), “New Amsterdam” (about a centuries’ old cop) and a possible prophet (“Eli Stone”). 

“Obviously, the success of ‘Heroes’ has a lot to do with these new shows,” says “Chuck” co-creator Josh Schwartz, who adds that TV shows with geek appeal have an instant leg up in the Nielsen game.

“In the new ratings world order, a devoted cult following alone can just about keep you afloat,” he says. “There are so few truly broad shows that sometimes a passionate one can mean a lot.”

What distinguishes most of the current crop of fantasy-friendly shows is that they seem to be keeping the geek factor to a minimum. Characters and relationships seem to be more important that inventing a complicated new universe of sci-fi babble.

In this respect, Schwartz and the nets seem to be going back to the future, putting a better-written spin on 1970s and ’80s escapist shows such as “Fantasy Island,” “Voyagers,” “Knight Rider” and the original “Bionic Woman.”

Next month’s Comic-Con should be crawling with TV nets pushing their projects. 

Scheduling goes viewer-friendly: Thanks to DVRs, viewers are accustomed to watching what they want to watch, when they want to watch it. And reruns are no longer a part of their TV habit.

“We saw ’24’ became a bona fide hit when they went to the consecutive air pattern,” says NBC West Coast prexy Marc Graboff. “And you saw what happened with ‘Lost’ this year — ‘Lost’ did get a little lost with (its split-season) air pattern.”

CBS will employ the same strategy for its midseason skein “Swingtown,” while CW is holding back sudser “One Tree Hill” for a complete, no-repeat run in January as well.

Then there’s also the case of simply ordering more episodes — a throwback to TV’s early days, when series ran for 39 weeks in originals every year.

At the Peacock, the net came up with the slogan “The Bulk-Up Challenge” in order to convince showrunners to produce as many episodes as possible, in order to keep the show in originals.

“We’re trying to stay more consistent in the scheduling for our audience,” says NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly. “It’s about momentum, and how you can lose that momentum with a hiatus.”

“Heroes” creator Tim Kring went an extra mile and created a whole new spinoff, “Heroes: Origins.” That show’s six eps will combine with 24 of “Heroes” to make for 30 hours of the franchise this season.

NBC also has 30 episodes of “The Office” in the works, and at least 25 of “My Name Is Earl.”

But ABC’s McPherson warns that bigger episodic orders aren’t always feasible.

“You have to be careful not to push it too much,” he says. “There’s a limited number that can be done, in order to keep the quality up.”

Extra episodes will also provide NBC with some strike insurance, should threats of a writers walkout come true.

Graboff also says studios love to have more episodes in their library for the backend, while the networks like them because they’re known commodities for consumers.

“It makes sense to keep a show out of repeats these days,” he says.

Still, don’t count out the rerun just yet.

“I don’t know that repeats are dead,” ABC Studios prexy Mark Pedowitz says. “The question of repeats on serialized shows have been out there for along time. Even ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ didn’t repeat well.”

 New power generation emerges: It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s clear that a new generation of producer power players has emerged in the network world.

Familiar names such as Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley, John Wells and Bruckheimer didn’t land new shows this year. Some, including Bruckheimer and Wells, saw their tallies decline.

“The cycle is moving to a different place,” Pedowitz says.

Movie mogul-turned-TV titan Mark Gordon is emerging as the new Bruckheimer, with the Touchstone-based producer landing five series orders (including the “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff). Greg Berlanti turned “Brothers & Sisters” into an unlikely hit, and was rewarded with two new shows.

Likewise, after scoring a hit with his first at-bat, “The OC” creator Schwartz buckled down and co-written two new pilots; both got on the air.

Also emerging as an industry force: “Grey’s” creator Shonda Rhimes, who will now try to navigate the tricky waters of a spinoff while mulling other pilot possibilities for next season. 

And while J.J. Abrams stayed out of the pilot game this season (save for an HBO project in the works), expect his new company to be quite prolific in the coming months. Reality titans such as Mark Burnett, Ben Silverman, BBC Worldwide and FremantleMedia North America are also breaking into scripted fare.

Pedowitz says Berlanti and some other producer powers were well served by working on shows for the now-defunct WB Network.

“They learned how to produce and craft shows with a lot of emotion and heart, and to do it for (less) money,” he says. “It was a great training ground for a lot of people.”

Network sitcoms? Still dead. There had been hope the nets would try to take some significant stabs at reviving the struggling comedy genre, particularly with a slew of high-profile laffers in the works.

Instead, the new lineups are notable for a decided lack of frosh laffers. It’s almost as if webheads just gave up.

ABC is adding the most comedies of any net, putting three on its fall sked. But CBS, CW and Fox are adding just one comedy in the autumn, while once-mighty comedy king NBC isn’t adding any comedies to start the season.

“There’s a reluctance to be bold on the comedy side because doing so hasn’t been rewarded the past few years,” says 20th Century Fox TV prexy Dana Walden. “What’s hysterically funny to one person might not be to the next.”

Not everyone’s crying over comedy. Sony Pictures Television programming and production prexies Zach Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht point out that their studio has for sophomore laffers returning to network and cable skeds.

In addition to Fox’s “Til Death” and CBS’ “Rules of Engagement,” Sony produces “10 Items or Less” and “My Boys” for TBS.

Van Amburg thinks cable is becoming a lab for comedy innovation.

“You’ve seen an aggressive attempt by cable to step up in comedy,” he says. “They’re willing to step up and take some chances to fill the gap” at the networks.

WBTV prexy Peter Roth, while refusing to declare comedy dead, admits nets and studios still haven’t figured out how to reinvent the genre for younger auds.

“Increasingly for young audiences, comedies have become predictable and irrelevant,” he says. “We haven’t done a good enough job offering compelling shows.”

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