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The Season of Mystery

This fall, networks need some fresh plot lines 11/14/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

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.

March