No, it's not you -- this really is the most bewildering TV season ever. And not just because Heather Locklear has been cast as a top exec at a major international airport in the post-9/11 world.
Adding to the confusion is the multitude of virtually indistinguishable reality series: three in which eager young contestants suck up to rich, ugly guys; two boxing competitions; and two spouse-swap series. Then there are the new series titles that give you no clue: "House"? It's a doctor drama. "Center of the Universe"? A comedy about a dysfunctional family. "Hawaii"? A cop show.
Meanwhile, NBC has debuted many of its new series, while Fox has announced so many permutations of its prime-time schedule that the suits at other networks whose jobs are to keep track of what the competition is up to have given up trying to figure out the Fox lineup.
This being the Season of Our Bewilderment, it helps to understand each network's strategy.
ABC has nowhere to go but up, having finished fourth last season. The good news is that most critics agree ABC has had one of its best development seasons in years. Naturally, the top suits at ABC parent Disney let go of the executives in charge of that development.
ABC, which will add 10 new series to its prime-time slate, has the distinction of having one of those rich, ugly guy reality series and one of the indistinguishable spouse-swap shows. The rich, ugly guy series, "The Benefactor," is scheduled for ABC's very difficult Monday night lineup. Donald Trump, star of NBC's Thursday series "The Apprentice" and the original made-for-TV rich, ugly reality guy, has predicted ABC's show will fail. Trump is probably right, not because he's so bright about TV but because nothing has worked with football on ABC's Monday night since "MacGyver" in the late '80s.
ABC still believes in comedies and has eight of them in its fall lineup -- twice as many as NBC. ABC will continue trying to build four-sitcom blocks on Tuesday and Friday nights. Tuesday's new "Rodney," starring stand-up comic Rodney Carrington, carries on broadcast TV's penchant for Male Pattern Optimism when it comes to sitcoms; that's where pudgy loser guys have hot wives. Is there a rule that hot guys can't do comedy on TV? Do the networks not know that most broadcast viewers are women? Is it any wonder the sitcom is dead, dead, dead?
Friday, ABC hopes to continue its restoration of the once-powerful TGIF comedy block the network spent years dismantling because -- well, because it's ABC. To that end, it has scheduled on that night a new sitcom called "Complete Savages" from Mel Gibson. "Complete Savages" is Gibson's vision of paradise: a house with no women. Just men and boys, talking sports, giving each other wedgies, talking about chicks, bonding.
ABC also has some of the most out-there new dramas on its slate, including Wednesday's "Lost," about a plane that crashes on a mysterious island. And, because God is an ad executive, the survivors are all youngish and all attractive (except one or two who are there for comic relief), and all of the women managed to save their bikinis from the wreckage. And there's this big scary monster on the island, so Disney can get a theme park ride out of the series, if nothing else.
Then there's Sunday's new "Desperate Housewives," about a bunch of desperate housewives cast, ironically, with desperate aging Hollywood babettes and one actual thespian, Felicity Huffman. And on Thursday, a night on which ABC hasn't a prayer, network suits have said, "Oh, what the hell" and scheduled for the 9 p.m. hour "life as we know it,"a new drama series about young people having sex. But then how else were they going to compete against CBS's ratings giant "CSI" and The Donald's "The Apprentice"?
CBS has an interesting new-series strategy this season: pudgy guys and sports. And, of course, the network has made its annual visit to the "CSI" well.
A new Monday comedy, "Listen Up," combines pudgy men and sports (as well as Male Pattern Optimism). It stars Jason Alexander as a character based on Tony Kornheiser, Washington Post sports columnist and ESPN commentator.
Tuesday's new CBS drama series, "Clubhouse," is about a teenage boy who dreams of becoming a batboy for the New York Yankees, only the New York Yankees won't let CBS use their name or even their pinstripes, so the poor kid becomes batboy for some stripeless team called the New York Empires. And there are hardly any women at all in the series, except his new maybe-girlfriend and his mom, who doesn't understand him, which can mean only one thing -- this show is from Mel Gibson!
Then there's Wednesday's new sitcom, "Center of the Universe," which is about a family patriarch, played by hefty John Goodman, whose TV wife is Jean Smart (more Male Pattern Optimism here).
Friday's new drama "dr. vegas" veers from CBS's strategy somewhat, being about neither sports -- unless gambling is a sport -- nor a pudgy guy. It stars Rob Lowe as a doctor who likes to wear black while gambling, which, on TV, means "sexy and a little dangerous." Lowe seems doomed to be upstaged yet again, on what was supposed to be a starring vehicle, by his co-star. This time it's not Martin Sheen but Joe Pantoliano, who plays his boss and the manager of the casino in which the doc toils and gambles.
CBS is the last network to conclude that Saturday night is not worth the bother or expense of scheduling original scripted programming. The network had announced that its Saturday lineup would include a newsmag, the reality series "The Amazing Race" and a crime drama rerun hour (read: "CSI" repeats), only "The Amazing Race" has done so well in the ratings over the summer that a few days ago CBS decided to yank its fall debut in order to have it in the can to replace something else when that something else fails. Like we said, a bewildering season.
Fox -- what can we say about Fox? Seriously, we're asking, what can we say about Fox? In May the network announced a whopping 15 new series that would debut in the next year, spread out over three separate prime-time schedules that would roll out in June, November and January. June's schedule is history, and the November schedule has already been altered.
The prime-time soap "North Shore," which was supposed to be the lead-in to the Frankenstein beauty pageant series "The Swan 2" on Mondays starting in November, has been moved to Thursdays, Fox announced last week. Meanwhile, Fox's spouse-swap show, "Trading Spouses," which has been airing on Tuesday nights at 8, has done so well that the network decided last week to move it to Monday nights at 8, replacing "North Shore" as lead-in for "The Swan 2." And one of Fox's Wednesday sitcoms for the fourth quarter, "Method & Red," already smells like toast.
In other scheduling mayhem, Fox's boxing competition series, "The Next Great Champ," debuted Sept. 7 and was supposed to air on Tuesday nights and rerun Fridays at 8 p.m., until November, when it was going to move to the 8 p.m. Friday slot. But it did not open well and so, after just one week, Fox announced last week that the show would move to 9 p.m. Fridays starting in late October, following new episodes of the clip shows "Totally Outrageous Behavior" and "World's Craziest Videos." Honestly, the less said about Fox's plans, the better -- we'll only have to take it back. "American Idol" starts up again in January -- that's all you really need to know.
The season has not yet officially started, and already NBC has learned that Carpe Olympicus is not necessarily a surefire way to launch a new TV season. NBC promoted the heck out of its new series during its 1,200 or so hours of Summer Games coverage from Athens across its broadcast and cable networks. The network claims that around 200 million people saw its Games coverage. It also said it would debut many of its new series right after the Games in order to capitalize on that momentum.
But its biggest new-series debut audience to date has been the nearly 19 million people who caught the premiere of "Friends" spinoff "Joey." More typically, the unveilings of "Hawaii," "Father of the Pride" and "Medical Investigation" scored 11, 12.4 and 11.2 million, respectively. This does not seem like a great return on NBC's Olympics investment. On the other hand, who knows? Without the promo blitz during the Games, maybe only 6 million would have tuned in to the first episode of "Joey."
After failing for so many years to develop a lineup heavy with sophisticated comedies, NBC has stopped trying to be the network of sophisticated comedies; now it wants to be the network of one-hour series watched by rich people -- people who vacation in Hawaii, high rollers who drop lots of money in Las Vegas, people whose idea of great drama is one in which Heather Locklear glams up the tarmac at LAX as opposed to one about the drug war at a West Baltimore housing project.
UPN is the other network that, most critics concede, had a good development season, which was very big news. Giving up the right to hate UPN was, for critics, like giving up the air they breathe. On the other hand, UPN needed only three new series to fill out its four-nights-a-week lineup (the fifth night is programmed by WWE). UPN has added one new black-cast sitcom to its Monday black-cast comedy lineup. And the franchise continues on Tuesdays from 8 to 9 p.m., leading into the new drama series "Veronica Mars." This may explain why Sydney Poitier, daughter of Sidney Poitier, was added, after the pilot had been shot, to the cast of "Veronica Mars," about a white high school chick who helps out her private-eye dad. But maybe that's too cynical -- is it possible to be too cynical about the casting of minorities on broadcast TV series?
Rather than cancel the ratings-starved "Enterprise," UPN has moved it from Wednesday to Friday nights, where the network's ratings expectations are very low because that's how UPN has done on Friday nights. This is vertical integration at its purest; the same guy who oversees the Viacom- owned UPN network now also oversees the Viacom division that produces "Enterprise," which needs a couple more seasons' worth of episodes to become a viable product in off-network syndication. And you were thinking how nice it was that they found a way to keep UPN's loyal Trekkies happy.
WB had a lousy 2003-04 TV season. WB discovered that the problem with an if-you're-notyoung-and-hip-you're-in-the-wrong-place programming and promotion strategy is that it tends to drive off people who aren't young and/or hip. Which, it turns out, is most of the country. According to WB suits, they discovered in studies that people over the age of about 34 tended to apologize for watching their shows, saying things like "I know I'm too old, but I love 'Gilmore Girls.' " So WB is trying to be a little less young and a little less hip this season, though the network may have gone overboard with "Blue Collar TV," starring Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy. Ironically, based on early ratings, it looks to be WB's breakout hit of the new TV season.