As networks roll out fall schedules, four trends redefine television
In a few hours, the Fox network will officially unveil its schedule for the fall, kicking off a week of similar revelations in which every broadcast network will outline its plans for the start of the 2009-2010 season.
And there may never a be a more pivotal time for TV.
Already, there are some inklings of what's to come. Rumor has it, low-rated yet critically admired shows such as Fox's Dollhouse, NBC's Chuck and ABC's Better Off Ted are coming back, along with ABC's comedy import from NBC, Scrubs and CBS's long-running crime drama, Cold Case. Reportedly out the door: Fox's Terminator series The Sarah Connor Chronicles and ABC's quirky police drama The Unusuals.
But, apart from the minutiae of individual cancellations and renewals, there are some larger trends expected to emerge this season, as television continues to be revolutionized by advancing technology and changing audience habits.
Here's a short list of what's coming:
Network TV becomes more like cable TV; cable becomes more like networks.
NBC's decision to turn over its fall 10 p.m. slot to Leno had an added benefit for the network: It cut down on the prime-time hours the network has to fill. As the big broadcasters lose audience to cable channels, one of the networks' biggest complaints has been that they must fill so many hours with original programs, while cable outlets offer a limited number of shows with lots of repeats.
Marc Berman, a ratings analyst at Mediaweek magazine, predicts networks like NBC will follow cable TV's lead, focusing on a limited number of hours in prime time and replacing failed new shows with reruns of popular series.
Berman expects Fridays, where only CBS draws real viewership, to feature more reruns, saving money for networks straining to fill 22 hours of programming weekly. And if Leno's show works, we'll see a return to the days of Carol Burnett and Sid Caesar, with rival networks firing up their own comedy/variety shows to cut costs and reap viewers.
Meanwhile, cable channels are offering more original programming than ever, with TNT presenting a record seven original series this summer.
Mass TV viewing drops as audience is increasingly divided by generation and media habits.
These days, the audience seems divided into three camps: old-school viewers who watch television traditionally and rarely access computers; young people who have instinctively accepted the union of TV and the Internet, watching programs across up to 10 screens each day; and middle-aged users who tend to separate television and computer activity, but are increasingly melding the two.
As more users fall into the last two camps, the big audiences broadcasters need to turn a profit are breaking up into smaller and smaller niches. It's the same problem newspapers face right now: increasing numbers of viewers migrating to platforms where the industry makes less money on them.
TV outlets will ramp up Internet activities, even though they make less money online
Television executives know they have to be online: increasingly, viewers demand the convenience and depth of material available online. And if someone eventually figures out how to make money there, they need to have destinations already established. But if such services pull viewers away from their channels, they may be undercutting their own profits.
"People love our product, but they're just everywhere and nowhere, you know?" said Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly in January. "For all the digital business we're nurturing along, it turns TV dollars into digital pennies. You wonder: Are you creating less incentive to watch your own channel?"
As competition gets fiercer, network TV gets blander.
Broadcasters have had some expensive failures this year, from ABC's Life on Mars to most of NBC's slate of new shows this year. So it may not be so outrageous to hear that the alphabet network is bringing back Scrubs for a 9th season after producers and stars were certain it had run its course. Planned revivals of Melrose Place on the CW and science fiction miniseries V on ABC also hint at a return to known series at a time when new material is struggling.