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Who'll take the fall?

Published May 13, 2001|Updated Sep. 9, 2005

You wouldn't know it from the usual tide of May "sweeps" events flooding your TV screen lately, but this is a crucial time for the TV industry.

With a tentative settlement between Hollywood producers and writers unions in the can _ bringing hopes for a similar settlement with actors' unions this month or next _ TV and film types avoided a strike that would have crippled both industries when they could least afford it.

Now they can put away emergency schedules loaded with newsmagazines and reality TV knockoffs and get serious about the fall season.

Beginning with NBC on Monday, the networks announce their fall lineups to advertisers in New York City this week, kicking off the early ad-buying season, also known as the "upfronts."

It's a curious ritual that brings Hollywood to Madison Avenue, hat in hand, trying to sell up to 80 percent of its commercial time.

Thanks to the slumping economy (profit-challenged businesses often cut ad budgets first), total sales are expected to drop to $7-billion from an $8-billion dot-com-fueled high last year.

The process reveals the true decisionmakers in TV. It's not the audience that determines a show's success, but advertisers who decide which types of viewers are most valuable.

As usual, a number of shows are "on the bubble," network slang for programs whose performance is mixed enough that their chances of returning aren't clear. This year, that list includes ABC's The Geena Davis Show, Once and Again and Gideon's Crossing, NBC's The Fighting Fitzgeralds and Three Sisters, CBS's The Fugitive and That's Life and the WB's Roswell.

But there are deeper questions about the fate of television in the year to come, from the continuing role of reality TV shows such as Survivor and Temptation Island to TV's attempt to add ethnic diversity in prime time programs.

How much reality TV is too much?

In January, the answer seemed clear. The original Survivor had racked up record viewership numbers in August, but CBS's bland followup, Big Brother, proved that clueless production could kill a good thing.

With a slew of clones ready to hit the screen in early 2001, snarky critics (including yours truly) were ready to write off the genre as a victim of overkill.

But _ surprise, surprise! _ most of them worked. Fox's Temptation Island and Boot Camp saved its Wednesday night schedule; ABC's The Mole didn't break records but drew enough young viewers to Tuesday night that ABC is planning a sequel. And this year's Survivor even managed to blunt NBC's juggernaut Must-See TV Thursday lineup.

Along the way, viewers showed they have standards, rejecting UPN's sleazy Chains of Love and ABC's empty-headed boy band saga, Making the Band.

On deck for summer and fall: CBS has The Amazing Race, featuring 11 teams running across the globe, Big Brother II under development and Survivor 3 in the fall from Africa; ABC has The Runner, encouraging viewers to help find a fugitive traveling cross-country. NBC will probably keep The Weakest Link around despite middling ratings and will debut Fear Factor (six adults face their worst fears) at 8 p.m. June 11.

The reason? Reality TV _ even a so-so show like Big Brother _ draws the young eyeballs that make advertisers swoon.

But with continued questions about how much in reality TV is real _ Survivor producer Mark Burnett recently admitted using stand-in actors to fake some shots and an alum of last year's installment has filed suit alleging a rigged expulsion vote _ no one in Hollywood knows how long before the bubble bursts.

"No one's going to find another Survivor . . . but (reality TV) should be treated as a serious genre, because it always works," said Marc Berman, an industry analyst for Mediaweek.com. He expects Fox might take three reality shows, including sequels to Boot Camp and Temptation Island, and rotate them on Wednesdays for the whole season.

Why are the best shows on ABC tanking?

Critics have fallen in love with the Sela Ward/Billy Campbell family drama Once and Again. The medical drama Gideon's Crossing and Denis Leary's off-color cop comedy, The Job, have also gotten rave reviews. But all three ABC shows are in danger of cancellation because of low ratings.

What is working at ABC? Damon Wayans' tepid Cosby ripoff, My Wife and Kids, and rubber-faced Joan Cusack's twitchy comedy, What About Joan?, two shows that don't seem anywhere near as accomplished as the stuff "on the bubble."

"Some viewer choices are completely beyond explaining," noted Stacey Lynn Koerner, an analyst at TN Media, a media buying firm in New York.

"Everything you see on TV will suffer a bit, because the talent pool is stretched so thin," Koerner said. "But a TV critic might say a show is well-written and well-acted, while a viewer says it doesn't speak to their life or experience."

Expect Gideon's Crossing, an admittedly uneven vehicle for former Homicide star Andre Braugher, to get the boot, along with Making the Band and Geena Davis, with The Job saved for early 2002. If ABC saves any show for quality alone, it will be Once and Again, which made TV Guide's cover as the Best Show You're Not Watching.

Whatever happened to diversity?

Despite years of criticism from minority advocacy groups, progress in adding ethnic diversity to prime time TV can be measured in inches, if at all.

Of four new shows advanced last year featuring people of color in starring roles, only Fox's Dark Angel (starring biracial lead Jessica Alba) and Boston Public (an ensemble drama with Chi McBride, who is black, as male lead) are likely to survive to the fall.

The advocacy group Children Now released a report May 1 showing the first hour of prime time to be the least diverse. Overall, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian-American actors are featured in only about 5 percent of all prime time network TV hours.

"It's unbelievable that Hispanics make up 12 percent of the population and just 2 percent of prime time TV roles (down 3 percent from last year)," said Patti Miller, director of Children Now's Children & the Media program.

"Kids are inundated with a lot of negative messages," Miller added, noting that more than half the Hispanic children contacted in a recent poll said they saw Latinos on mainstream TV "very little or never." "It really points to the dire need for networks to expand the picture."

Will people really jump networks to watch Buffy?

When producers of the action series Buffy the Vampire Slayer announced that the program would jump networks from the WB to UPN, a deluge of speculation followed.

Was News Corp., which owns Buffy studio Twentieth Century Fox and part of UPN (and the Fox network), flexing muscles of synergy? Would the WB keep spinoff Angel just to pit it against Buffy? Would UPN pick up teen alien drama Roswell, after a likely cancellation by the WB, and pair it with Buffy?

Most important, with Buffy past its prime and a history of ratings plunges by shows that change networks (including ABC's Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which went to the WB this year and The Hughleys, which went to UPN), is this a suicide move?

"Buffy will definitely lose steam on UPN," said Mediaweek.com's Berman, noting that CBS's JAG is one of the few shows to find success in switching networks (CBS just renewed JAG, a former NBC show, for two years). "The show peaked last year . . . and more often than not, these switches just don't capture the same audience."

But 25-year-old public relations executive Kara Vichko is among a small group of fans working to make sure that doesn't happen. Devoted to the show and connected online, the San Diego resident is convinced Buffy fans won't let their show lose any steam on UPN.

"We have remote controls and we know how to use them," said Vichko, adding that the fan group has collected $5,000 to place ads in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety trade magazines touting Buffy's move. "There's 4.4-million fans who tuned in every week, and I think most of us will stick around."

Who stays and who goes in the fall?

On NBC, expect DAG, The Fighting Fitzgeralds, Three Sisters and Third Watch to disappear. CBS will keep Family Law but dump The Fugitive, Some of My Best Friends and Nash Bridges or Diagnosis Murder.

Surprise new show: a third Law & Order series subtitled Criminal Intent.

With star Roma Downey negotiating a new contract (adding former One Day at a Time star Valerie Bertinelli to the cast this year sure feels like Hollywood insurance to me), Touched by an Angel may be a "bubble" show next year. Oscar winners Richard Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden may join the lineup in a new show, The Education of Max Bickford.

At Fox, expect to see The X-Files return without David Duchovny and a possible renewal for spinoff dud The Lone Gunmen, mostly to keep X-Files creator Chris Carter happy.

With Star Trek: Voyager ending this month, UPN gets the new Star Trek series, called Enterprise (Internet buzz says the show will be a "prequel' to the first Trek series, with former Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula as the next captain). The WB is likely to lose Jack & Jill, Popular and all its Sunday lineup except for The Steve Harvey Show and Nikki Cox's Nikki.

And for those concerned that quality may take a back seat to gratuitous reality TV shows and empty comedies, Dorothy Swanson, former head of the defunct Viewers for Quality Television advocacy group, offers a simple conclusion.

"This is what we all watch," said Swanson, who lives in Spring Hill. "It's really never been about quality. We're just getting the TV we deserve."

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