The success of Fox's "24," and, to a certain extent, ABC's "Lost," is fueling an insatiable taste for thrillers and mysteries. That's evident in the fall schedule announcements made this past week by the five biggest broadcast networks.
TV executives evidently feel the surest route to success is to get your adrenaline pumping.
Titles alone tell the story: "Kidnapped." "Vanished." "Standoff." An NBC serial will track a rich kid's abduction, while a Fox mystery will try to figure out why a senator's wife disappeared. Fox's "Standoff" will follow an elite team of FBI hostage negotiators and ABC's "The Nine" is about the lives of nine people caught up in a hostage situation. ABC's "Traveler" tracks youths trying to prove they didn't set off a terrorist bomb, while the CW's "Runaway" follows a man who disappears with his family to prove he didn't commit a murder. ABC's "Day Break" borrows from the movie "Groundhog Day," with a detective repeating the day he was framed for murder in order to solve the case.
Even several non-serials promise to keep nerves on edge. Both Fox and CBS have promising legal dramas on tap. Because of a plum Thursday time slot and a star, James Woods, who plays a brilliant defense lawyer who becomes a prosecutor (and works for Jeri Ryan), CBS's "Shark" seems primed for success. Another CBS drama features Ray Liotta as a crook pulling off high-tech heists.
Prime-time TV next fall will often feel like CNN gone haywire.
In a quieter way, "24" is also influencing the television calendar. Fox schedules it as a limited-run series, letting a season unfold from start to finish with no repeats or interruptions.
Next season, NBC has committed to not running repeats of "ER," breaking its run in midseason with another drama. ABC will be doing the same thing with "Lost," whose devotees grew furious when repeats were sprinkled in.
"We really listened to the fans," said Steve McPherson, ABC entertainment president.
This tests the traditional economics of television, where the advertising revenue from repeats has been crucial to paying for a series' production. But DVD sales are helping to bring in extra money. Besides, McPherson said, the audience is growing far less tolerant of repeats, particularly for shows with ongoing story lines.
That's one of the reasons CBS favors dramas with stories that begin and end with each episode. "`CSI' is a far more profitable show than `Desperate Housewives,'" said CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves.
Don't look for a resurgence in television comedy next fall. CBS is introducing only one new sitcom, with two each for NBC and Fox. None are pushing any envelopes in terms of subject matter and production.
Based on short previews screened for advertisers last week, the most promising are ABC's "Let's Rob...," about a group of misfits determined to burgle Mick Jagger's home, and Fox's "`Til Death," with Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher as a married couple influencing the newlyweds next door.
NBC's "30 Rock" pilot had some belly laughs, and Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast as a venal TV executive. But together with Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," NBC is asking a lot of viewers to embrace two shows about the backstage world behind a thinly disguised "Saturday Night Live."
The Sorkin series quickly became the subject of television insiders' favorite parlor game.
As its most-touted new show, NBC was already testing "Studio 60" by giving it a Thursday time slot opposite "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." But when ABC scheduled "Grey's Anatomy" at the same time, the Sorkin show was put in danger of becoming roadkill unless NBC moves it.
Where will it go? That's the guessing game. Asked if he's burning up the phones trying to get the show moved, Peter Roth, head of the Warner Bros. studio that is producing "Studio 60," answered: "Is the pope German?"
With one notable exception, the broadcast networks were conservative last week.
Fox and CBS both made a point of stressing stability. CBS is adding only four new series in the fall. The CW, a blend of UPN and the WB, is picking up one new drama and a comedy spinoff.
"We don't have huge highs and huge lows," CBS' Moonves said. "We are not the manic-depressive network."
His reference was to ABC, which has a frightfully thin bench. Despite three sensations in "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," ABC somehow managed to finish fourth in the ratings one recent week. As a result, McPherson committed to introducing a staggering 15 new programs next season.
During his presentation to thousands of advertisers last week at New York's Lincoln Center, the black-clad McPherson said he had lost a bet to Jimmy Kimmel about "Dancing With the Stars." He had to pay up onstage, when a sequined professional dancer joined him for a cha-cha routine to AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long."
As the slightly stiff executive made his moves, the audience held its breath, then laughed uproariously. McPherson pulled it off. He was rewarded with a standing ovation.
Subtly, a more important message was delivered: This was a network not afraid to take chances and have some fun.
ABC will undoubtedly have the most flops next season, but also stands the best chance of launching a show that captures the public's imagination. Considering it has comedies about pregnancy and a wedding day, a remade Latin American telenovela and a series about a single relationship counselor set loose in Alaska, women will likely lead the way.
"You never know where your big hits are going to come from," McPherson said.
By David Bauder, AP Television Writer