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Fewer laughs in fall's TV lineup

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Those changes include a rapidly eroding broadcast television audience base in the face of an explosion of competition from other entertainment, most notably the vast diversions of the Internet. This feeds an industry-wide scramble to find new revenue streams as TiVo and other digital video recorders render the 30-second ad spot less effective. These strategies are "much more a reaction to what digital is enabling than some creative choice we're making," says Ben Silverman, co-chair of NBC.

What this all means for the average viewer scrolling through the fall debuts is a blitz of enticements to resample freshman shows from the past season, such as "Pushing Daisies," "Life, " "Dirty Sexy Money," and "Lipstick Jungle."

Returning tent pole shows such as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" will arrive with the fanfare of a feature film première. "We're going to make Sunday night and "Desperate Housewives" a priority launch for the fall," says Mr. McPherson, "which would not be a regular thing if we had a lot of new shows and a lot of priorities."

Many of the new dramas combine successful elements from established franchises. The dramas such as "The Mentalist," "Fringe," "The Eleventh Hour," "My Own Worst Enemy," and "Life on Mars" feature supernatural or paranormal elements combined with procedural story lines to make each episode more self-contained. These tap the same techniques on display all over the existing prime-time schedule, from "Heroes" to "Lost" and any number of crime procedurals such as the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises.

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