TV biz banking on its tentpole titans

Franchise shows dominate public psyche

As in the film biz, the pursuit of tentpole properties is becoming the name of the game in network TV.

That was one of the subtexts at the just-ended Television Critics Assn. tour, where CBS research topper David Poltrack regaled reporters withintriguing stats that suggest just how dominant franchise shows — think “CSI,” “Law & Order” and “Wheel of Fortune” — have become in the public psyche.

While the top 30 shows on all of American TV account for an ever greater proportion of viewer attention, 20% of all primetime viewing is devoted to a dwindling number of hit shows. DVR use is accenting the trend.

When all viewing is taken into account — repeats on the network, reruns in syndication and on cable, and increasingly, streaming on the Web and downloading to mobile platforms — Poltrack contends, a surprisingly small number of shows dominate the standings.

“The top franchise shows are stronger today and cutting across more platforms than ever before,” Poltrack says. Turns out his own company, CBS, boasts, per his survey, the show with the No. 1 overall viewership in the country, “CSI: Miami.”

If the trend intensifies, it could shift the way nets develop series as well as the way they value their libraries — just as it has in the film biz.

Whether more spinoffs and sequels are a better bet than the scattershot approach to TV development (the failure rate in primetime TV currently being about 80%), well, that’s a question no one knows yet how to answer.

* * *

“House” opened the doors, but the Fox show that stars Brit thesp Hugh Laurie is just the most high-profile example of the inordinate number of foreign actors now filling key roles in primetime series in the U.S.

The self-deprecating Laurie, just nommed for an Emmy as the quirky doc, quipped that maybe Brits come “cheaper” than their American counterparts.

But there’s more to the influx than that.

Foreigners have been key players on the bigscreen for years, but the smallscreen has been a much more conservative, whitebread medium. Foreign accents, unknown faces — forget it. And the occasional exceptions like “The Avengers” or “The Saint” simply prove the rule.

But that was then. A cursory look at the cast makeup of the new crop of dramas and sitcoms is eye-popping: There are two dozen or so thesps, mostly from Britain, Australia or Ireland, who have made it into lead roles on the frosh contenders. They range from Jonny Lee Miller on “Eli Stone” to Lloyd Owen in “Viva Laughlin” to Damien Lewis in “Life”; from Frances O’Connor and Miranda Otto in “Cashmere Mafia” to Polly Walker in “Cane.”

CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler suggests that actors in Britain and elsewhere saw how good American series have gotten in the last few years and have yearned to be a part of that creative flowering.

Laurie didn’t disagree, saying that what drew him to the role of House was “a stunning piece of writing.”

There are other reasons as well.

British thesp Sophia Myles, who has a prominent role in the upcoming Eye drama “Moonlight,” said the British government had so cut funding for filmmaking in the U.K. that many actors needed to look abroad for work.

And U.S. network brass are beginning to recognize that in order to more easily sell or promote their series abroad, it doesn’t hurt to have a European actor who may be well enough known back home to generate additional sampling or stories in the papers.

* * *

As if we needed any more evidence that the lines between news and entertainment had been blurred beyond recognition, now comes “Anchorwoman.”

Billing itself as a comedy-reality show, this concoction on Fox focuses on a former swimsuit model who moves to tiny Tyler, Texas, to try her hand at local news reporting. The show takes place in the real-life newsroom of the local CBS affil in that market, KYTX, and actual newspersons play themselves, as it were.

While some folks in Texas are asking if this is such a good idea, station GM Phil Hurley contends it’s just what the place needs to bring advertisers onboard, and to put a little bite into his news operation.

“OK, you’re right,” Hurley said during a break at the TCA. “This couldn’t have happened 10 years ago. But look at news today. What it is and what viewers want from it have changed dramatically.”

In a week when newsies were falling over themselves to report on Lindsay Lohan’s latest DUI and it took YouTubers to finally enliven a presidential debate, it’s hard to get huffy about a ditsy blonde covering her first fire.

* * *

Praise from the TV critics may just be the kiss of death for ABC’s upcoming drama “Pushing Daisies,” which itself is a wacky take on death. Described by creators Bryan Fuller and Barry Sonnenfeld as “more ‘Beetlejuice’ than ‘CSI,’ ” the whimsical mystery-cum-romance was just about the only show to elicit applause from the hard-bitten press corps. Great to look at, great cast, intriguing central conceit.

But it’s just such critical darlings (think “Friday Night Lights,” “Studio 60,” “Relativity”) that so often fail to fly with regular viewers. Plus, “Daisies” has to lead off Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. against NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” and Fox’s Kelsey Grammer sitcom “Back to You.”

As producer Sonnenfeld put it, “You live in fear.”

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