Crime shows, not soaps, popular in tough times

Chasing the public mood represents a treacherous task for networks, as well as one of the more mindless games that journalists like to play — seeking to connect the popularity of glitzy soaps like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” during the 1980s, for example, to the Reagan administration’s laissez-faire polices.

Such “trends” tend to reveal themselves, if at all, only with the benefit of hindsight. That’s even truer today, when the audience is dispersedthrough a greater variety of options, and determining a program’s success is clouded by DVR use, downloads and other forms of delayed viewing. Series can rightfully be proclaimed hits, moreover, with one out of 25 U.S. adults age 18-49 watching — totals that hardly amount to a sweeping mandate.

And yet …

Soft ratings for primetime soaps, coupled with heartening numbers posted by certain crime procedurals in the fall TV season’s first month, make it reasonable to speculate that a portion of the audience is growing weary of characters prone to whining about their love lives. Instead, they seem to be seeking refuge from their besieged economic fortunes with programs that open with investigators hovering around a chalk outline.

If there’s more than a grain of truth to this theory — and coming off a strike-interrupted season admittedly clouds the view — the implications bode pretty well for CBS and Fox, and potentially badly for ABC, which has the most character-driven eggs in that basket.

Like the “CSI” shows, the circumstantial evidence begins to look more persuasive once it starts piling up.

ABC’s domestic dramas have uniformly eroded at the season’s outset, with double-digit percentage drops, based on Nielsen live-plus-same-day tallies, posted by “Desperate Housewives,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and its spinoff, “Private Practice” (the last down more than 40% compared with its promising debut in 2007). Series renewed mostly because the strike played havoc with development, meanwhile, such as “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Eli Stone,” returned to ho-hum response.

CBS’ procedurals, meanwhile, have better weathered this decline — including unsung programs like “Criminal Minds” and “NCIS,” along with newcomer “The Mentalist,” one of the fall’s clearest successes. Another early bright spot is “Fringe,” a Fox show cut from the same paranoid-conspiracy cloth as “The X-Files.”

The question is why some viewers might abandon programs like “Housewives” and “Grey’s,” especially considering that the former has jumped into this season in fine creative fashion, while the latter keeps plucking at the same tired “Who’s left to sleep with?” notes.

Possible answer: The subject matter feels conspicuously small — and even smaller as our own problems and apprehensions are magnified while watching our 401(k) shrivel.

Development execs frequently ask producers to “raise the stakes,” which usually means framing drama in life-or-death terms. This argument normally sounds inane, but CBS’ retreat to a simple universe of crimefighters and tidy endings — due less to foresight than to its failure with more ambitious efforts like “Swingtown” and “Viva Laughlin” — might have inadvertently come at the right moment.

Assuming the craving for meat-and-potatoes TV persists, critics — who generally share an appetite for complex serialized fare — could be further marginalized and driven to find solace in cable’s arthouse tiers. That will be especially true if major networks dial up more spinoffs, revivals and high concepts (as they appear to be doing) at the expense of taking creative risks, dishing up the review-proof episodic equivalent of comfort food.

Additional possibilities naturally follow this notion of TV for recessionary times. One would think comedy might be poised for a rebound, which hasn’t occurred yet. There’s also the puzzler of whether reality shows draped in opulence will vicariously appeal to viewers or repel them — shows like Bravo’s upcoming “First Class All the Way,” where a haughty travel consultant boasts about “scoring a yacht in high season” on behalf of her pampered luxury clients. Hopefully, she can score air-sickness bags for the rest of us.

There was a time when you could escape into TV by watching screwy characters and thinking, “Gee, maybe my life’s not so bad.” Nowadays, perhaps the best way to seek consolation is to think, “Hey, at least I wasn’t beheaded by a boat propeller in an ingenious homicide designed to look like an accident.”

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