Stars, Trends Emerge From Fall TV Season

Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen aren't TV stars, but Tawny Cypress and America Ferrera are. Ordinary people with extraordinary powers are interesting. Hostage dramas? Boring! Stephen McPherson's big gamble paid off, Aaron Sorkin's hasn't — and we're still looking for laughs.

More than a month into a new prime-time television season, and some lessons are starting to emerge. As is often the case, many buck conventional wisdom.

"The shows that the networks were highest on creatively were not the shows that people flocked to," said Jeff Bader, head of scheduling at ABC.

Witness NBC on Monday nights: Creator Sorkin's much-anticipated return to TV, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," studded with stars like Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Amanda Peet, is struggling to hang on. "Heroes," littered with unknowns like Cypress, is a hit. The last time they ran back-to-back, the "Heroes" audience was nearly twice as big.

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ABC scheduled Ferrera's "Ugly Betty" for the television graveyard of Friday nights until, sensing a buzz, the network switched it to Thursdays. It instantly became ABC's biggest new hit of the season.

Meanwhile, despite pundits predicting the nuclear catastrophe drama "Jericho" would be a bomb itself, it's been a pleasant surprise for CBS.

But the CBS crime drama "Smith," which figured to be a strong candidate for success with names like Liotta and Madsen, instead was gone before the leaves had started falling in most parts of the country.

Even for a business accustomed to more failure than success, to have only three modest new-season hits is something of a letdown for many in the television business.

"There were higher expectations because there was a perception — true to a certain extent, I think — that the quality of the (new) programming was better than it had been in a while," said Preston Beckman, chief scheduling executive at Fox.

He found many of the pilots almost cinematic in quality. That also may have been their downfall: Some concepts seemed like they'd make a good film but weren't necessarily TV shows that people would want to return to each week, he said.

Even with "24" on vacation until January, the airwaves were choked with cliffhangers like "Standoff," "Vanished" and "Runaway." NBC's now-departed "Kidnapped" required squeamish viewers to check in on the progress of saving a child in danger.

Other shows were simply too difficult to grasp. ABC is concerned that viewers have wrongly pegged "The Nine" as a hostage drama when it's really about relationships. And what exactly is "Six Degrees" about, anyway?