My last Tampa Bay Times Fall TV preview: Watching the networks try to copy the cool kids of television
It's not often you get to write this in our modern media age, but you really need to pickup the physical, newsprint copy of today's Tampa Bay Times to appreciate the fun, cool flavor of our latest Fall TV Preview.
Page designer Brittany Volk -- a stone fan of the small screen in her own right -- brought an amazing, fresh flavor to her revamp of a section we have been cranking out every year over the 16 years I have served as the paper's TV and media critic.
The cover has collection of cool quotes I nabbed from July's TV Critics Press Tour in Los Angeles; the back page offers a color-coded schedule of the fall broadcast schedule, along with debut dates (Fox managed to make everyone's preview sections inaccurate by changing the date of its comedy Enlisted to January last week); we even list some of the midseason shows the networks should have debuted instead of some lamer shows bowing over the next few weeks.
Antiquated as the fall debut of 27 new network TV shows may feel in an increasingly on-demand TV universe, I'm convinced there are few promotional platforms for cutting through the noise of today's multichannel universe better than this moment.
Over the next two weeks, magazines such as Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide will publish their guides, along with major newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times (I pre-taped a talk about it for Monday's Morning Edition on NPR, as well). Just try to get that kind of coverage for a single new show, especially if it doesn't have any big stars in it.
I'm also glad Brittany stepped up to make this Fall TV Preview a special one because it's the last fall TV preview I'll get to write before I head off Sept. 30 to be NPR's new TV critic. It's always fun -- not just because I essentially get to take over the Sunday Latitudes section -- but because you really get a sense of the fall season's rhythms when you're forced to find something intelligent to say about every new network TV show coming this fall.
And what's obvious about this year is, even as online technology and the explosion platforms to watch media have brought a bounty of choices to consumers, performers and TV producers, those whose ob it is to make money off this content are more frazzled than ever.
Consider the attitude of Conan O'Brien, who couldn't stop raving about how the changing nature of the TV business -- he has an 11 p.m. TBS show, which produces a load of viral videos, he's executive producing a Rebel Wilson sitcom for ABC and an Adult Swim cartoon with ex-Late Show With David Letterman writer Chris Elliott — helped erase his sorrow over losing The Tonight Show a few years ago.
"There's this world out there now that's actually keeping me youthful," said O'Brien, 50, who talked about 14-year-old kids stopping him in airports to talk about their favorite viral videos from his TBS show, Conan. "I grew up in one world, watching Johnny Carson clips. Then a million crazy things happen, and you realize the mission is to . . . try to make something funny happen and it will get out. Whether someone sees it at 11 o'clock on TBS or their Google glasses show it to them, it doesn't matter."
So why does this season feel so desperate for network TV executives?
Like old-school nerds trying to dress cool and sneak into a hip nightclub (a scenario that actually occurs in Wilson's ABC comedy Super Fun Night), broadcasters have cloaked their typical fall deluge of new shows with as much 21st century pixie dust as possible, aping the cool kids on cable and online to stay relevant.
Fox snared the king of viral media, Saturday Night Live alum and Lonely Island comedy group member Andy Samberg, for one of the season's best pilots, the cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Love the explicit horror of The Walking Dead? Then watch the Headless Horseman decapitate innocents and enable a centuries-long mystical conspiracy in Fox's new take on Sleepy Hollow.
At ABC, their biggest show is a spinoff of one of the biggest movies ever. Marvel's Agents of SHIELD hopes to pull the fanboys who made The Avengers the third highest-grossing film of all time onto the network of Grey's Anatomy and Dancing With the Stars.
CBS is sticking with its playbook, mining for a broad comedy hit with in-house hitmaker Chuck Lorre (Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) and his new show Mom, while cooking up The Crazy Ones for Robin Williams, a star sure to charm the NCIS crowd.
And NBC seems to be chasing everything that has worked for every other TV outlet, from greenlighting a sequel to the History channel's blockbuster miniseries The Bible to bringing back Dracula, Sean Hayes, Michael J. Fox and a thinly veiled, spy-focused revamp of Silence of the Lambs called The Blacklist.
"We're the only broadcast network flat (in viewership) from the previous season," Bob Greenblatt, NBC's chairman of entertainment, told TV critics in July, sounding as tired as you'd expect the head of the third-place network to be. "I know one could say, 'How good is it to celebrate being flat?' But at this point in our business, flat is the new up."
Actually, since people now are consuming more than 157 hours of TV per month — a rise of two hours from last year, according to Nielsen — flat is the new challenge for network TV. Those extra hours likely are being spent somewhere other than on their product.
Here's the trends I see in fall:
Broad comedy is in. Everyone wants to create the next Big Bang Theory. It is the last big comedy hit in old-school broadcast network terms, with a huge audience, critical acclaim, fan devotion and ability to rake in loads of cash through syndicated repeats.
That's why Fox turned to Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and hi stable of writers for Dads, its multicamera sitcom about two video game company owners with overbearing fathers. But broad and irreverent for MacFarlane often means sophomoric with borderline sexist and racist tendencies, so a scene where the guys push an Asian employee into wearing a schoolgirl uniform to charm potential Chinese clients drew a huge backlash.
Dysfunctional, crass parents rule. Too many network TV comedies this fall center on cartoonishly dysfunctional parents to adult characters, including CBS's Mom, The Crazy Ones and The Millers; ABC's The Goldbergs and Back in the Game; NBC's Sean Saves the World and Fox's Dads.
Sure, such roles are great opportunities for showbiz veterans such as Beau Bridges, Linda Lavin, Allison Janney and Martin Mull. But they're also predictable as a banana peel on the floor, a not-too-subtle revelation of how many Hollywood TV writers have issues with their own parents.
Family stuff is in. The deluge of dysfunctional parents comes courtesy of the decision to focus so many fall TV shows on family comedy, piling NBC's The Michael J. Fox Show and Welcome to the Family alongside ABC's Trophy Wife on top of the shows listed earlier.
The result is a landslide of cute kids saying impertinent stuff (my favorite: Trophy Wife's 9-year-old Albert Tsai, who blackmails a caregiver into buying him a $100 set of Legos), frenetic parents making bad decisions and aging grandparents talking about farts or sex (or, even worse, both at once).
Diversity only goes so far. As in years past, there's still only one new network show starring a nonwhite actor, perennially employed Blair Underwood in NBC's sadly lackluster remake of the classic cop show Ironside.
But there's a new trend to beat back the inevitable complaints of under-representation: the ethnic co-lead.
Three of Fox's five new shows feature black actors who arguably share top billing with white actors: Andre Braugher on Brooklyn Nine-Nine;, Michael Ealy on Almost Human and 42 co-star Nicole Beharie on Sleepy Hollow. And NBC's Welcome to the Family, featuring a Latino family brought together with a Caucasian family by a pregnancy, tries giving equal weight to each household.
It's easy to take potshots at the TV networks these days, even as they struggle to cope with a surge of competition, sinking ratings and a growing inability to repeat episodes (that business is moving to online and video on demand services such as Netflix). But it's also true that the quality of new shows is slowly growing, with fewer pilots turning out so stinky you wonder why they were made in the first place.
Will that be enough to connect with an audience that's now pickier and less patient?
Not even the network honchos know for sure. "People are loving television, but how they're watching it and where they're watching it and what they're watching . . . is very difficult to always get by the tail," said Kevin Reilly, Fox's chairman of entertainment. "I don't think we're a bastard stepchild or any sort of broken system. . . . It's just hard."