This week, the broadcast networks are busy shuffling and finalizing their fall schedules in preparation for their unveilings at next week's upfronts. Except for NBC, which jumped the gun in April by announcing every seasonal lineup for the next 15 months. (Coming Wednesdays in June 2009: Shark Taggers! No kidding! Set your TiVos now!)
One factor that gets very little consideration in these deliberations—much less, perhaps, than it deserves—is this: When the dust clears and the overall schedule is assembled, what's the flagship show? What's the message from each network's prime-time lineup? When you think of a network—if you do—what do you think of first? And what does that say about that network?
Start with Fox, which is not only the highest-rated network, but the most interesting. Think of Fox, and the obvious flagship series is American Idol, which doesn't even make an appearance on the fall schedule. It hibernates until January—but at least it emerges once a year, which is more than you can say for Fox's other major attention-getter, 24.
Remember 24? You'd better have a good memory. It hasn't been seen on TV since May 2007, a year ago, and won't be seen again until January 2009…not long before Shark Taggers.
But Fox also has The Simpsons, coming up on its 20th astounding year, and House, a strong drama with a charismatic lead. The network has every reason to be proud if people think of any of those shows when thinking of Fox —and pride certainly wasn't always the first thing associated with the Fox network. Even when it had The X-Files, Fox mostly was known as the network that brought us When Animals Attack and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?
So Fox, in this century, has polished its image considerably. But what about the other networks?
CBS spent much of last season trying to shock us—Kid Nation! Viva Laughlin!—but bored us instead. It's a network, right now, still defined by CSI-style crime procedurals, by a single night of sitcoms, and by the sublime (60 Minutes, blessedly mature in more ways than one) to the ridiculous (Big Brother, the horrid series that refuses to die). If CBS has an identity right now, it's not shocking or feisty. It's musty.
ABC draws a lot of viewers with Dancing With the Stars, but its big imprint right now is with romantic comedy-drama primetime soaps. Desperate Housewives. Brothers & Sisters. Ugly Betty. It's like Lifetime, but with better actors, bigger budgets and more imaginative writers.
And if one show can define a network for the better, Lost has done it for ABC. No matter how many Wife Swap and Supernanny pieces of guano ABC throws against the prime-time wall, so long as it presents Lost, it'll have at least one bright bastion of quality TV.
And what of NBC? Not so long ago, the thought of NBC conjured up visions of Must-See TV, of a Thursday lineup of one quality series after another. In 2008, after a series of missteps, NBC has the same sort of quality Thursday lineup, including 30 Rock and The Office—but much of the audience has defected. Despite the excellence of the individual shows, NBC's Thursday is less dominant than desperate: It's closer to Please-See TV.
Otherwise, what does NBC give us to think about? The various permutations of Law & Order, which are getting as tired as CBS's CSI factory knockoffs? American Gladiators and Knight Rider, both of which are coming back (the former in only a week, so beware)? Deal or No Deal, as ubiquitous as ABC's once overplayed Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Yes, yes and yes. And those are all bad answers. NBC, like CBS, needs to bring us something that's great, not something else that's grating.
Finally, there's The CW. Last fall, it presented the delightful new comedy Aliens in America, a fitting companion to Everybody Hates Chris—then rewarded the stewards of that comedy block by eliminating the network's comedy development division. Instead, the show around which CW clearly is determined to define its identity is Gossip Girl.
And that's interesting, because it appears to be targeted to viewers so fickle and mobile they can't bother to watch the show when it's broadcast on TV. CW stopped streaming the show on its Website so fans would watch it on air; that just angered fans. So if a show isn't seen on the network, how strongly will it be associated with the network?