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Fall TV: Whatever sticks

Fall TV Preview 2011-12

Dinosaurs! Playboy bunnies! Fairytale worlds!

Got your attention? The networks certainly hope so when it comes to the hooks behind their fall shows. High concepts and gimmicks are a tried-and-true method for drawing eyeballs to new series, but are they getting in the way of what keeps viewers coming back: story and characters?

Channing Dungey, senior VP of drama at ABC, says a crowded landscape for new shows is what’s driving the search these days for great hooks.

“I was reading somewhere there are something like 46 new shows premiering in the first three weeks of the fall season, and that’s outrageous in terms of getting the average consumer to pay attention,” says Dungey, whose network is dangling the conceptual carrots of stylish ’60s stewardesses (“Pan Am”), storybook characters (“Once Upon a Time”) and twentysomething vengeance (“Revenge”) this fall.

But she acknowledges it’s only one part of the puzzle: “A big hook can be great; you’ll have a big opening. But if you haven’t got the right foundation, you’re never going to keep that train on the tracks.”

Jennifer Salke, NBC Entertainment prexy reporting to new chairman Bob Greenblatt, says that when she’s hearing pitches, she looks to see how a hook can be an additive, not the main ingredient.

“You have to love the show and the characters with a non-existent hook, and then if that hook elevates it, then I feel you’ve got a shot at something special,” Salke says.

There may be no bigger bag of hooks this fall than Fox’s expensive “Terra Nova,” which Salke helped develop in her previous job at Twentieth Century Fox Television and which offers lures on-camera (dinosaurs), in the storytelling (time travel) and behind-the-scenes (exec producer Steven Spielberg). According to “Terra Nova” showrunner Brannon Braga, a conceptual hook can make the familiar seem new again, but it shouldn’t overpower the human factor.

“Dinosaurs will get them to tune in, but the people will get them to stay,” says Braga, who admits casting “Terra Nova” was “the hardest thing we did on this show.”

Perhaps the best example in recent memory of high concept and characterization meeting in high-ratings harmony was the rollout of “Lost” in 2004. A plane crash and mysterious sights gave the pilot episode oomph, but it was an emphasis on setting up the survivors’ stories each episode that lay the groundwork for the more complicated concepts down the road.

The graveyard of less-than-galvanizing copycat serials with wild hooks in ensuing years (“FlashForward,” “The Event”) only served to underscore the difficulty of the task.

“They got you invested in those characters,” says Dungey about “Lost.” “They took their time and took you to places where the island is traveling through time. I think the mistake us and other places made (with later series) is that we started traveling through time on episode three.”

Are the days over, then, when a network could drop a star into a hospital or precinct, name the show after the character and expect viewers? Or have a show about a group of friends that doesn’t have to be called “Cougar Town” first, to cite a series that survived in spite of a sensationalistic title that doesn’t describe it anymore?

Dungey says that less hook-driven ABC hits such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” which relied on its ensemble and writing, and the star-powered, procedural-oriented “Body of Proof,” did well due to midseason launches far from the madding crowd.

“I’m not sure, had we put ‘Body of Proof’ on in the fall, that it would have had the same opportunity for sampling,” Dungey says. ” It would have been overwhelmed.”

For TV Guide critic Matt Roush, when a show doesn’t deliver on its hook, it’s an especially doomed feeling that he believes leads to only one conclusion: A great show sells its own greatness.

“In the best of all TV worlds,” Roush says, “the show itself becomes the hook.”

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