Nets flourish with fall crop

New shows shine as reality, crime series fade

“It may be low-tech but I still maintain the whoopee cushion has comic validity.” — Sheldon Cooper, “The Big Bang Theory.”

The broadcast networks were on the ropes this television season even before it began — months before. Once NBC announced on Dec. 9, 2008, that it would take the cost-conscious step of programming Jay Leno at 10 p.m. Monday-Friday this fall, the floodgates opened.

Paradigms were shifting all over the place, cultural norms of television viewing were instantly obliterated and media biz prognosticators battled one another to deliver dire predictions of the grim future for the broadcast networks. And that was before any of those seers realized how bad things were going to get — not with Leno, but with the advertising market.

But while the death of network TV was predicted as an absolute certainty by some, the primetime business defied that logic. Network television has had a surprisingly strong fall overall, with more than a few shows performing above par and a few downright impressive.

Comedy has made a very big comeback. “NCIS” and its progeny can’t be stopped. The “Glee” kids sing for their supper, creating multiple revenue streams for Fox through robust music and merchandising sales. And we see once again that “Family Guy” fans will follow it anywhere, even to “The Cleveland Show.”

Before the 2009-10 campaign started, it looked like the pundits might be right. It did get ugly in the ad market in the first half of the year — what with automakers in bankruptcy, retailers in freefall and major financial institutions reduced to taxpayer welfare.

The global panic prompted the nets and major studios to implement draconian cuts in spending on new and returning series budgets and marketing campaigns. That seemed to ensure a low-risk/low-reward season for the major nets.

But Fox has been rewarded for spending big on costly music rights to make “Glee” sparkle with up-to-the-minute tunes. And just imagine how well it’ll do in the spring when it eventually airs behind “American Idol.” ABC bet big on scripted skeins and has been rewarded with one bona fide hit — laffer “Modern Family” — and a few quasi-hits (“V,” “FlashForward,” “Cougar Town” and “The Middle”).

Now that the ad market is picking up — knock wood — the nets and studios are feeling a little more confident about development for the 2010-11 season, which is welcome news to the creative community.

Meanwhile, there has been every rumor imaginable about the fate of “The Jay Leno Show” swirling in recent weeks: It’s going to three nights a week, it’s moving to 10:30 p.m., Jay’s going back to 11:35 p.m., and on and on. After three months, it’s hard to characterize Leno’s perf as anything but disappointing for the Peacock. It seems to have handicapped the net’s 8-10 p.m. fortunes, and certainly it’s been a drag on the post-primetime numbers for its affils and “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.”

Knowledgeable sources at the Peacock say the plan is to stay the course with Leno through the rest of the season. But there’s also a growing feeling that despite the two-year commitment NBC made to Leno, his show will not be on the sked in the same form next season.

Among the other lessons to be drawn from this season so far:

Quality works: The most heartening trend of the season is the strong aud response to well-written, well-cast and well-produced programs. Exhibit A: ABC’s laffer hit “Modern Family.” Exhibit B: CBS’ solid performer “The Good Wife.”

Scheduling works: Everyone wrote off the importance of primetime skedding as DVR usage continues to grow by leaps and bounds. But would “NCIS: Los Angeles” be as big a hit were it not joined at the hip with its progenitor? Did Fox not find the second-best aud (next to “Idol) to feed into “Glee” by placing it behind “So You Think You Can Dance”? CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” exploded into TV’s top laffer after CBS decided to create the Chuck Lorre Hour of Power, moving “Big Bang” to the 9:30 p.m. slot behind “Two and a Half Men.”

The equation here is very simple: The right show + the right lead-in = ratings gold.

Zeitgeist works: Critics teased CW for shamelessly hopping on the vampire-drama bandwagon with “Vampire Diaries,” but really, in the long shadow of “Twilight,” “True Blood,” et al, can you blame them? “Vampire Diaries” is CW’s No. 1 show with auds under 35.

Title revivals rarely work: Witness the struggles of “Melrose Place” and “Eastwick.” Quality is more important than a Q-score. The pressure is on for next season’s planned reboots of “The Rockford Files” at NBC and “Hawaii Five-0” at CBS.

Stars don’t automatically work: America still has a soft spot for Kelsey Grammer, but not for an uninspired vehicle like “Hank.” And Gen-Y may follow the messy details of Mischa Barton’s personal life in the tabloids, but they didn’t tune in to short-lived models drama “The Beautiful Life.”

Although this season has had its pleasant surprises, not all is rosy for as 2010 approaches. Ratings for the reality stalwarts that have propped up the nets for most of the past decade are trending down, with NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” being the major exception. And there is no question that primetime’s crime spree is inevitably slowing down, as ratings for “CSI” and its ilk — “NCIS” notwithstanding — are also down significantly.

But perhaps more than any time since the 2004-05 season produced four megahits (“Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy”), there’s a sense that auds are looking for something fresh — and liking what they see this from the broadcasters this fall.

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