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Network television has lessons to learn

it feels like we're all about to plunge down a very steep roller coaster.

Forget the economy: I'm talking about the next two months in network television. It's filled with a collection of wondrous new shows, strategically located to bolster a delayed February "sweeps" ratings period, which was pushed back by the digital TV transition Congress put off until June. Sigh.

Starting in March, the lineup is impressive: the monarchy-in-modern-times story of NBC's Kings, the high-profile dysfunction of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice, ABC's remake of failed dramedy Cupid and the alphabet network's TV-sized version of Thank You for Smoking, called Better Off Ted. To name a few.

TV fans, we are at a crucial moment. Network television has about six months to prove it can be more than a haven for the latest CSI knockoff and unscripted exercise in not-so-reality TV.

And from what I've seen so far, it is about to wipe out, big time.

It's creating shows that won't draw enough audience.

There are four types of shows topping TV ratings these days: formulaic mystery/crime shows such as CSI; reality shows such as American Idol; romantic soap operas such as Grey's Anatomy; and shows that air after American Idol. Outside of Fox's 24, complex series with convoluted story lines are dying a slow death on the networks. So why is the crop of new shows coming on NBC and ABC filled with this kind of stuff? This is about impressing the industry and critics, not nabbing eyeballs glued to Criminal Minds and CSI: Miami.

It's ignoring the lessons from cable TV.

A cable channel can build a business on a few successful shows drawing audiences way too small for the networks (AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad). The series have shorter runs, so they can focus more on quality. And they turn formulaic setups into engaging shows with appealing casts (Exhibit A: TNT's The Closer). Why can't the networks do the same?

It's cutting costs in damaging ways.

Here, NBC is the worst offender. From handing its 10 p.m. time slot to Jay Leno to writing Saturday Night Live skits around advertiser PepsiCo and basing an entire TV series on a giant car commercial (Knight Rider), the fourth-place network has pioneered ways of destroying its reputation to fatten owner GE's bottom line. And if it makes enough money, expect the trend to spread.

It's reacting too slowly to changing audience tastes.

In an iPod-based, Twitter-fueled media universe, consumers are used to instant content. But many of these new network shows were conceived and filmed many months ago. Since these shows were approved for production, we've plunged into a historic recession and elected our first black president. Will we have to wait another year before TV series catch up to the reality we're living?

TiVo

The Black List, Vol. 2, 8 p.m. Thursday, HBO: The power of former New York Times movie critic Elvis Mitchell's Black List documentaries is a simple device: He never appears in them. Instead, his subjects talk directly to the camera — and by extension, the viewer — providing an intimate conversation with an eclectic, revealing mix of notable black folks, including academic and onetime activist Angela Davis; actor Laurence Fishburne; and filmmaker Tyler Perry. From hearing Wu Tang Clan rapper RZA explain his fascination with chess to seeing Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick reveal why he cried when Jennifer Hudson sang the National Anthem during Barack Obama's triumphant Democratic National Convention last year, this series manages to showcase the unique way black culture has fueled the accomplishments of a wide diversity of superstars.

TiVo

The Chris Isaak Show, 10 p.m. Thursday, the Bio Channel: Pop crooner Chris Isaak may be the best performer Hollywood never figured out. His Showtime dramedy was a low-rated gem and his new talk show seems poised for similar status. The best moments come when Isaak and his longtime band jams with his musician guests, including ace country singer Trisha Yearwood and Yusuf "Cat Stevens" Islam. Isaak needs to amp up his charmingly low-key personality for the interviews, though, which feel a little too much like chilling with a couple of cool musician buddies at the end of a long rehearsal.

the list

My wife had the same reaction as many of you when Tony-winning actor Hugh Jackman was announced as the guy who would lead tonight's Academy Awards

(8 p.m., WFTS-Ch. 28): Why?

Which led me to some serious reminiscing about who has actually done well at the job. Here now, my list of hosts who made the most of TV's biggest showbiz showcase.

Billy Crystal. He has hosted eight times since 1989, perfecting the modern balance of cheeky humor and respect for Hollywood that makes for the best hosts. And his opening montage bits inserting himself into all the nominated films became a classic touchstone.

Johnny Carson. A five-time host from 1978 to 1983, Carson led the Oscars with the same deceptively offhand wit that powered his legendary Tonight Show. Comic David Steinberg said Carson's genius was in knowing exactly how far to go with a joke and keep the audience in his corner.

Bob Hope. A movie star who hosted a backbreaking 18 times from 1939 to 1977, he was vintage Hollywood's image of the perfectly sarcastic, yet Hollywood-friendly host.

Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley MacLaine, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. I never saw this quartet when they hosted the 1975 show, but doesn't it read like a guest list to the coolest old-school Hollywood dinner party in history?

Ellen DeGeneres. Not since Richard Pryor (who hosted as part of a team twice) had there been a more unlikely Oscar host when DeGeneres took the gig in 2006. But her kid-gloves manner and cutesy bits — including getting Steven Spielberg to take a picture of her with Clint Eastwood — scored.

Network television has lessons to learn

02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 3:31am]

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