Networks use short-passing game with shows

WHILE RATINGS for other sports have diminished, pro football remains television’s most reliable audience grabber, far exceeding any other game. So it’s perhaps inevitable that those coaching the broadcast networks would rip a page from the NFL’s playbook.

Both major networks and football offensive schemes have adopted a short-passing game — seeking to advance downfield by sticking to a low-risk, conservative strategy. And damned if that hasn’t yielded better results than anything else in this otherwise hum-drum season.

Although this observation dovetails with both the current network development cycle and the annual hype-building window preceding the Super Bowl — a Roman numeral-designated exercise (No. XLIII!) in televised gluttony — this thought has been percolating since the New York Times unwittingly linked football and TV with two unrelated same-day articles.

The sports section pointed out how NFL scoring has climbed this season, thanks to the relatively new gameplan known as the West Coast offense. Under that approach, the paper noted, “The deep pass has given way to the dink-and-dunk … using high-percentage, risk-averse horizontal passes” that count on talented receivers to break free for extra yardage.

On the arts side, meanwhile, Bruno Heller — creator of the season’s one clear hit, CBS’ crime procedural “The Mentalist” — espoused a similar philosophy. After producing the scintillating HBO series “Rome,” Heller conceded that his new program, starring the dreamy Simon Baker, was specifically molded as a companion to “NCIS.” “I know that sounds sausage factory-ish, but that’s the end of the business I hadn’t been in and wanted to learn,” Heller told the Times. “This is a popular medium. There is a place for visionaries and the avant-garde in this world, but not at 9 o’clock on a network.”

LAST WEEK, all the networks had the chance to detail their development plans during sessions with TV critics, who, depending on what you read, were most preoccupied with what was served for lunch. Amid the blather, CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler made a rather frank admission as she sought to debunk what she labeled media myths: Ground-breaking fare? Who needs it. Too many crime procedurals? Apparently not as long as they’re well executed, meaning that people can’t get too much of a good (or at least grisly and familiar) thing.

This amounts to an about-face after CBS briefly attempted to widen its net with the poorly executed “Viva Laughlin” and beautifully rendered “Swingtown,” whose principal crime was expanding outside the Eye network’s comfort zone. Then again, based on its recent series choices even “Fox attitude” has gone from daring to dull.

The recession has triggered speculation about whether tough economic times will influence tastes in entertainment, but the multiplex isn’t the first place to look. Sure, people flocked to the silly discount comedy “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” but the lag time in producing movies will make any correlation between content and the public mood at best imprecise.

Television offers greater immediacy and thus provides a better litmus test, with some execs arguing (usually self-servingly) that comfort food is in vogue as an emotional balm for financial uncertainty.

“In unpredictable times, predictability in content can be very attractive,” Hallmark Channel prez-CEO Henry Schleiff said last week in discussing the cookie-cutter nature of the network’s easily digested original movies. “It may sound alien in L.A. and New York, but there are families … that would like to sit together and watch something that’s entertaining.”

SUCH AN APPROACH isn’t exciting creatively and won’t give critics much to chew on. Indeed, a short-passing game promises to further enlarge the gap between broadcasters and cable channels (especially on the pay front) that can approximate the TV role of a theatrical arthouse.

The bottom line is, don’t be surprised if next year’s programming roster looks even safer and more boring than this year’s. The recession may claim innovation and creativity on the broadest platforms among its short-term casualties — as networks hope that combinations like Heller-to-Baker can take an easy toss and break it for a big gain.

Maybe the football guys recognized this all along. After all, they don’t call throwing deep a “bomb” for nothing.

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