The Season of Mystery
This fall, networks need some fresh plot lines
By Brian Lowry -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/14/2004 7:00:00 PM
A New York Times reporter is working on a book about the current TV season, and at this point, I'll be damned if I can figure out what the theme will be.
As watershed years go, this one is playing like a soap opera that viewers joined in progress, which, as we all know, can be confusing. Yet, as with series like Desperate Housewives, there ought to be a way to gracefully recap events for those who haven't kept pace.
So with a brief lull in the action as we approach the midway point of the November ratings sweeps, here, as best as I can re-create it, is the prime time story so far.
For starters, the fall actually began somewhat awkwardly during the summer, though few of the actual summer shows actually survived to Labor Day. After that flurry, NBC weighed in with the Olympics, which proved as reliable an attraction as ever, before stumbling badly coming out of them. Specifically, the shows that launched in early September, like Father of the Pride and Hawaii, landed with a pretty resounding thud, as did most of Fox's pre-baseball reality series.
The season got under way in earnest circa mid September after the low-rated Emmy Awards, otherwise known as “HBO R Us.” And for once, the critics pegged it, as ABC—previously, the gang that couldn't program straight—rocked the biz with two major serialized hits, Lostand the aforementioned Housewives.
The news hasn't been nearly as good for NBC, with mediocre results for Friends spinoff Joey, diminished returns for The Apprentice in its second go-round and a quick hook for the computer-animated Pride. That brings the network dangerously close to being out of the comedy business.
Even the Law & Order franchise has exhibited signs of wear, at long last, in part because the equally voracious CSI franchise hasn't. Indeed, the third version, CSI: NY, surpassed even CBS' most ambitious expectations by beating the original Law in their initial face-offs. Moreover, the first CSI (set, I think, in Vegas, but who can remember?) has transformed the once-heated Thursday race into a laugher in total viewers.
The “Fox on the ropes” story, meanwhile, began to pick up steam before baseball reminded us that it can giveth as well as taketh away. The Boston Red Sox' improbable rally to defeat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series yielded big numbers to offset a truncated World Series. Suddenly, Fox was back in the game, with American Idol and the Super Bowl looming early next year.
The WB and UPN continue to be a factor in a selected few time periods, but even their most buzz-worthy new programs haven't been significant ratings grabbers.
At the same time, Desperate Housewives is siphoning away a huge audience on Sundays in an hour that has been the linchpin for HBO's original-programming efforts, which should make the award-laden pay channel's future efforts even more challenging ratings-wise.
That pretty well brings us up to speed, staring at a four-network race that sees CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox separated by 0.2 rating point among adults 18-49 season-to-date. CBS remains the front-runner in viewers, but the other three are closely bunched together, with Fox's baseball-inflated second-place status likely to dissipate quickly.
So just to review: CBS, the one-time old-fogy network, is on top in viewers and demos; “Must-See TV” is looking mustier than almost anyone would have guessed; ABC is doing a creditable job of trying to shed the adjective “beleaguered”; and Fox is preparing for another potentially remarkable comeback.
Oh, regarding “B” plots, here's a partial list: Jay Leno made like the good soldier and announced he'll leave The Tonight Show in 2009 so NBC could hand the reins to Conan O'Brien. CBS News shot itself in the foot with a 60 Minutes report on President Bush's National Guard service. And Disney is seeking a replacement for Chairman Michael Eisner, who announced plans to leave when his contract expires, which should be sometime after the shareholder lawsuit over Michael Ovitz's hiring and firing ends.
OK, now that we're caught up, enjoy the show. As for that book, can't wait to see how it turns out, but at the pace things are moving, I have a feeling it's going to have one hell of a long epilogue.
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