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Are TV shows heating up or just warmed over?

First, the good news: If you are a TV fan, the next two months will bring a smorgasbord of goodies. • Even as the big networks have whittled their post-writers strike slate of new shows to just over 20 — we usually get 34 to 38 — the big cable channels have stepped up with their own savory morsels, from The Shield's final season on FX to tonight's debut of the HBO vampire drama True Blood. • That's bad news for broadcast networks, which face more pressure than ever to draw audiences after a strike that gave everyone about nine months to find something to do besides watch broadcast television. • But don't try telling that to Heroes star Greg Grunberg, who remained confident his superheroes-in-average-clothes series would emerge stronger than ever — even as blockbuster films such as The Dark Knight and Iron Man boost audience expectations for fantasy fare. • "The success of those movies tells me people want to see this . . . we need hope right now," he said, bursting with energy while ticking off the ways producers have improved the show.

"There's so much adrenaline," said Grunberg, whose mind-reading cop character Matt Parkman gets zapped to a bleak desert and must find his way back. "We're all challenged with the question of whether to go good or go evil . . . This season is just this train that goes and goes without having to re-introduce these characters."

Heroes isn't the only show slipping on new clothes. In its finale season, ER welcomes back founding star Noah Wyle and introduces St. Petersburg-raised actor Angela Bassett as the emergency room's new chief.

Desperate Housewives jumps five years into the future, while Matrix star Laurence Fishburne joins the cast of CSI. Luke Perry and Seinfeld's Jason Alexander will crash Criminal Minds, and Lucy Liu joins the cast of Dirty Sexy Money.

Originally, Housewives creator Marc Cherry was planning to jump ahead seven years. "My writing staff was like, 'Well, do you want to go in there and tell all those women they're going to be seven years older?' And I said, well, five is good."

The change offered a chance to reset his long-running hit, turning Eva Longoria's sleek model Gabrielle Solis into a mother struggling with her weight and Teri Hatcher's emotionally needy Susan Delfino into a stronger figure.

"The critical media in some way is driving the intense pressure to make sure we come up with something to get everyone's attention again," the producer said. "It's cable, the Internet . . . people have choices now that they never had before, and we've got to tap dance a little faster."

Still, with all this pressure, few people have any sense of how good this season will actually be. Pressed for time and trying to save money, many networks didn't develop pilot episodes as they have in years past.

The upside: Networks aren't spending hundreds of millions making sample shows they will never air. The downside: Critics, some network executives and even some stars have no idea what kind of shows they'll be making.

Jeff Goldblum joined Law & Order: Criminal Intent without even knowing his character's name. "I would tell you everything I know, but I don't know much," Goldblum said in July. "I was probably a good and effective cop for a while . . . I might have left for a while for a mysterious reason and I have a talent for insight into the psychology of the individual criminals . . . Does that sound good?"

It seems amazing that a strike that ended in March could still be seizing up the network gears. But even the head of entertainment for NBC — an increasingly frazzled-looking Ben Silverman — agrees that the strike limited the new ideas each network could attempt, while boosting the need for recognizable concepts that might strike a quick chord.

"It's a page from the movie industry," Silverman said in July. "Looking at last summer . . . every single movie was derivative, either a theme park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, a toy, Transformers, a comic book, Spider-Man. . . . We need to open in a world of 500 channels in a fractionalized marketplace."

Suddenly, the return of Knight Rider makes so much more sense.

It also makes sense that we would see so many imported TV ideas, from NBC snagging Australian hit Kath & Kim, to CBS taking Israel's The Ex List, Britain's Eleventh Hour and another English show, Worst Week.

Forget about viewers, who have barely heard of these shows' original versions. It's all about reassuring nervous executives into bankrolling projects that will be new for the audience but have proven track records.

Hovering in the background is a simple concern: that no matter what they do, a certain segment of the audience is never coming back to network television.

"Those old TV habits are now just brittle and paper thin and easily broken," said TV producer Marshall Herskovitz, who remembered losing 200,000 viewers every time ABC shifted his 40-something family drama Once and Again, which eventually moved eight times across the network's schedule.

"As TV producers and audience members, we have a lot more choices today, which is wonderful," added Herskovitz. "But there's a lack of commitment people have to television. Once that's broken, people don't often come back."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521.

Here are the Tampa Bay area affiliate stations for the national networks: ABC: WFTS-Ch. 28; CBS: WTSP-Ch. 10; NBC: WFLA-Ch. 8; Fox: WTVT-Ch. 13; The CW: WTOG-Ch. 44; MyNetworkTV: WTTA-Ch. 38

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Are TV shows heating up or just warmed over? 09/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 11:22am]
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