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Oh, the Drama: Prime Time Could Be in For Shake-Ups

By Lisa de Moraes
Sunday, September 6, 2009

The start of the 2009-10 TV season should be a time of celebration in Hollywood. When the Premiere Week spigots open up, nearly 100 hours of prime-time programming will plead to be seen.

Plots will get rescued from hanging cliffs, series cast members will jockey to become the latest career made -- or remade. Cable will once again take its well-deserved fourth-quarter breather after a long hot summer chipping away at the broadcast audience with original scripted series, before revving up again in January.

But instead of celebrating, Hollywood creative types are flinging themselves on their sofas and chewing the cushions in an agony of grief over the coming season's Big Broadcast TV Experiment.

They've survived experiments of the past -- those that have stayed (reality TV) and those that have gone (prime-time quiz shows). But no experiment has ever been such an outstanding blot on the public's best interest as NBC's decision to ditch all of its drama series time slots at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday for its new Jay Leno-hosted comedy/talk/variety show. That's five drama time slots gone. (Okay, maybe three drama series and a couple of "Datelines.")

This experiment could profoundly change the way broadcast networks do business and what you, dear readers, see on television. For years, NBC was THE home of upscale, elegant, must-see scripted series. Now the network is skipping the must-see angle and going for the must-save.

Giving Jay the 10 p.m. time slot is not just about keeping him from going to ABC to pound Conan O'Brien in late night -- it's about programming to profit margins. That new paradigm has Hollywood feeling like it had stopped to tie its shoelace and got hit in the back by the 9:25 Pacific Surfliner to San Diego.

If you add in NBC's two-hour fat-farm competition series "Biggest Loser" on Tuesdays, the network's "NBC Rerun Theatre" on Saturdays and its NFL football package Sundays, what you've got is NBC airing a mere eight hours of scripted shows each week out of prime time's 22 hours.

To put that in perspective: That's the same amount as produced by CW -- the sexed-up Gen Y soap network.

Meanwhile, CBS, the country's most popular TV network, will air twice as much scripted fare as NBC: 16 hours per week. But they and ABC will be watching the Big Broadcast Experiment closely.

While NBC is giving the drama genre a swift blow to the windpipe, this season is bringing back comedy in a big way. Broadcasters evidently have finally decided -- what with the economy, the wars, global warming, health-care costs and Katherine Heigl announcing that she's taking a long break from "Grey's Anatomy" to star in yet another glutinous romantic comedy flick -- that we're all depressed enough to actually give sitcoms another chance.

* * *

So why is NBC doing this Big Experiment? It's rewriting the Broadcast TV Playbook.

The Old Broadcast TV Playbook is predicated on two basic principles:

-- It's all about ratings.

and

-- You can spend your way to a hit.

Relying on the playbook as their bible, broadcast execs have shelled out tens of millions of dollars to put as few as five and as many as 15 new series on their prime-time slates each fall, in hopes that one series, or maybe two, really clicks with, say, 20 million viewers in nice round figures.

"Cowabunga!" cries Madison Avenue, whose advertising suits begin to cough up crazy amounts of money to buy 30 seconds of ad time for their clients in the new hit series.

"Yowza!" shout honchos at cable networks and local TV stations, who start paying Insane Money for the rerun rights.

"Ooh la la!" rave overseas TV network honchos, who fork over even more Stupid Money for the right to dub the shows into their native tongues.

"Whoopee!" scream rabid fans, who fork over Silly Money for the complete first-season DVD boxed set, for which they may never cut the shrink-wrap.

All those other new series -- the ones that did not snare enough viewers to survive -- get tossed in the Collateral Damage trash bin. Then the whole thing starts all over again, resetting the game for next TV season.

NBC is now playing a different game, with new rules. That game is called Programming to Margins. NBC suits think they can win by slashing costs to rack up points with shareholders and thus declare a new form of victory in which you can win even if you haven't had a bona fide hit in years.

NBC suits know Leno's new comedy show won't attract as many viewers as the scripted dramas the other networks have scheduled at 10 p.m. weekdays: "CSI: Miami," "Private Practice," "The Mentalist," etc. They concede that this means advertisers will not pay as much for ad time on Leno's show as they will for ad time in those scripted series. The execs believe they have guaranteed their own success if only because Leno's show will cost so much less to produce. Leno recently bragged to a gathering of reporters that he can make a whole week's worth of "The Jay Leno Show" for the price of one episode of "CSI: Miami."

NBC's bold programming move has shaken drama-series writers, directors and actors right down to their very sense of entitlement. TV drama series writers recently spoke -- to an even larger gathering of reporters -- about Leno's new show. Among the yeastier comments, Peter Tolan -- the well-known TV series writer whose credits include "Rescue Me," "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Murphy Brown" -- called the Leno thing "craven."

"You can't stack [Leno] up against 'Hill Street Blues,' " Tolan insisted. Tolan would have a point, were "Hill Street Blues" still on NBC's schedule. Sadly, it is not. Instead, for the past few years the network has been trying to foist 10 p.m. dramas like "LAX," "Lipstick Jungle," "My Own Worst Enemy" and "The Listener" on an unsuspecting public.

But for this coming season, NBC has decided that if it's going to give us a good laugh at 10, it should at least be on purpose.

If you're looking for a bright side -- there's always one in Southern California -- it belongs to the comedy writers, who are feeling pretty bucked up these days. Comedy writers had no dog in the 10 p.m. weekday kerfuffle and do not think of Leno as the snake in their Garden of Eden. Heck, Leno employs comedy writers -- among the best-paid in the business, he notes.

After years of being treated like the family hound who keeps laying presents of dead rats on the living room carpet in spite of being repeatedly apprised that the market for dead rats is sluggish, comedy is back in a big way this TV season.

And no, we're not talking about all those one-hour series that have been masquerading as comedies at trophy time for years now, like "Ugly Betty." Nor are we talking about those serialized half-hour shows masquerading as lighthearted mini-dramas, like "The Office." We're talking about genuine half-hour comedy series -- some even shot in front of a live audience and sweetened with laugh tracks, as God intended, and in which each episode has a story line with a start, a middle and a finish. Shows like CBS's "Two and a Half Men," the most successful comedy on TV today and one of the country's 10 most-watched programs.

Half-hour sitcom was declared dead several seasons ago. It happens from time to time that comedy is declared dead. Usually it stays dead until some network accidentally puts on a really good one that really clicks with viewers, as "The Cosby Show" did the last time comedy was dead in the '80s. When that happens, all of Hollywood beams upon that show like some beautiful messenger bringing good news from a foreign land, and comedy is declared reborn.

This time, CBS's general luck with its Monday comedy lineup of "How I Met Your Mother," "Big Bang Theory" and the aforementioned "Two and a Half Men" has inspired broadcasters to take another look at the sitcom. These traditional sitcoms repeat well.

But those one-hour dramas masquerading as comedies do not repeat well -- the aforementioned "Betty," and "Desperate Housewives," for instance. Those half-hour single-camera serialized comedies masquerading as mini-dramas -- "My Name is Earl," "Scrubs" and "The Office," etc. -- they also don't repeat so well as traditional sitcoms like CBS's "Two and a Half Men."

And actual drama series don't repeat well. But the heavily serialized drama series like "Lost" and "Heroes" that have been the darling of broadcasters for the past several seasons -- the ones you can't write about in TV Columns without putting "SPOILER" at the top lest your e-mail crash due to hate-mail overload -- those shows really do not repeat.

Repeatability in the summer has become extremely important to broadcasters, as cable networks offer more and more original episodes of scripted shows during June and July.

ABC, for example, is laden with serialized dramas and one-hour comedies. ABC flat-lined in the ratings this summer, suffering historic lows. ABC, not coincidentally, has jammed a whopping four new comedies into its Wednesday lineup this fall.

NBC is adding one sitcom, plus that whopping five hours of Jay Leno-does-prime time -- though Leno's show won't repeat at all. But that won't matter, because Jay's going to produce original episodes 46 weeks a year. Scripted comedy series make only about 24 original episodes each season.

On the flip side, CW continues to insist it's too hip and trendy for comedy and says it has none on its schedule. But you may think otherwise when you see CW's new series "Beautiful Life." It's about a hunky hick from Iowa who reluctantly moves to Manhattan and becomes a fashion model, enduring the unwanted advances of modeling-industry male predators and other indignities -- in order to save the family farm.

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