Bow during development season puts eye on age-old question

If you detect stronger than usual rooting interest for and against NBC’s musical drama “Smash,” you’re probably right — and it’s not the ordinary Hollywood schadenfreude, or apprehension a down-on-its-luck competitor might start getting on its feet again.

The intense reactions to “Smash” rather illustrates an ingrained tension within the TV industry, dividing those eager to brave more adventurous fare from keepers of the status quo, who are inherently suspicious of programs that threaten to change the way they conduct, or at least look at, the business.

Broadcast networks have been burned often enough by series whose lofty ambitions yielded miniscule ratings to view such pitches warily. Those who have been around awhile know there’s ample truth in the adage every producer — no matter how successful — has a well-reviewed clunker in them, just waiting to be unleashed.

Writers, meanwhile, who sit atop TV’s creative food chain, gravitate toward the prestigious fare currently associated most closely with a cable model. That’s fine, provided you’re operating under those ground rules, which allowed HBO to renew “Luck” before there was the slightest evidence people actually had any interest in watching it.

Consider the roster of TV nominees for this weekend’s Writers Guild Awards. Of the programs chosen in the outstanding comedy and drama categories, only ABC’s “Modern Family” is an unqualified hit by conventional ratings standards, with CBS’ “The Good Wife” the lone broadcast drama. The same pattern largely holds for individual episodes — a cable sweep on the drama side.

For writers, any outside-the-box hit creates perceived opportunity to paint with a more colorful palette. By contrast, a “Smash” crash reinforces the “That’ll never work” mentality that tends to squelch risk-taking.

Analyzing the ratings for “Smash” — which saw its total audience drop 30% in week two, to a little over 8 million viewers — is exacerbated by playing out in the midst of development season, when broadcasters begin making decisions that will shape next season’s lineups. Success or failure could embolden programmers (particularly NBC) to either broaden their horizons or cause them to retrench.

It will take a few more weeks, especially after its much-ballyhooed opening, to fairly determine how well “Smash” weathered its trial period, but its downward trajectory will need to level off soon to make NBC breathe easier. Although the episodes remain creatively strong, the network’s diminished expectations for the 10 p.m. hour are perhaps the most formidable asset in the show’s corner.

In addition to division within the biz regarding such programs, one more constituency bears mentioning — namely, TV critics. Partly due to a social media environment that encourages a looser dialogue, some journalists have become shameless and persistent lobbyists for programs they like. Having seen high-brow exercises struggle in the past, they’ve gone beyond positive reviews to pleading, cajoling and hectoring networks to keep shows around, in a way that can make them sound more like teenage cheerleaders than fair-minded scribes.

Of course, “Smash” is just the latest poster child for this art-commerce schism. Yet given NBC’s psychic investment in the project, it’s a significant one, and the show’s Broadway setting only highlights charges of elitism from naysayers who question whether it’s possible to repackage the Rialto for a mass audience.

It’s also noteworthy what programs have been working this season on the major networks: mundane (if occasionally smutty) comedies, and a fairly traditional procedural, CBS’ “Person of Interest.” Indeed, the Eye’s latest hit represents the kind of series networks absolutely love — well executed, but relatively undemanding. Scoring with such familiar material reassuringly indicates there’s no compelling need to reinvent the wheel, or even bother bending the frame.

So if you perceive an extra dose of sniping from the wings regarding “Smash,” you’re not being paranoid. Because in those rare instances when something like this proves viable, it has the potential to challenge assumptions and make all the convenient and comforting excuses against taking such chances sound just a little bit hollow.

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