2012 midseason TV: Searching for the secret ingredient — audience

At this very moment, in a hotel in sunny Pasadena, Calif., broadcast TV suits are rhapsodizing about the can’t-miss-ed-ness of the new series they’re going to unveil for midseason — which, in rough numbers, means “between now and late May” — while a crowd of TV critics beams upon them as if they were bringing good news from a distant land.

Look — Kiefer Sutherland’s back!

Guess what “GCB” stands for — tee-hee!

We’ve got “Glee” — for adults!

Yes, the critics seem to have completely forgotten these same suits assured them just six months ago that this was The TV Season of Simon Cowell — and the season of time traveling to an age when Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs tore up the landscape and Hugh Hefner was young and virile.

Only, as it turned out, this is not The TV Season of Simon Cowell, creator and star of Fox’s new singing competition “The X Factor.” It’s The TV Season of Ashton Kutcher, savior of the country’s most popular comedy, “Two and a Half Men.”

And, while they got it right about viewers longing to travel back in time, they were all wet about the dinosaurs and Hef. Viewers longed for an age when Rumpelstiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood roamed the Earth, when Prince Charming cavorted with Snow White rather than Playboy bunnies, and when Tim Allen was a big sitcom star on ABC.

And yet, at the hotel in sunny Pasadena, undeterred broadcast execs are, right now, decanting all their midseason enthusiasms, and TV critics are inhaling it by the snootful.

Here’s what they’re taking in:

If time travel was the rage for fall, missing people is the trend for “midseason” — at least, ABC thinks so. The network has scheduled two missing-persons dramas for midseason.

Early next month, ABC will unveil “The River,” about a nature-show star who goes up the Amazon and vanishes. Six months later, his family finally decides to go looking for him — aided by the sexy and resourceful Lena, the loyal mechanic Emilio, a lethal bodyguard named Captain Kurt Brynildson — and Dad’s producer, who’s going to shoot the whole thing documentary-style. This one’s got Comic-Con monster hit written all over it.

Then, in March, ABC will trot out “Missing,” starring Ashley Judd (it’s a bad day for foreign kidnappers who take her son, not realizing she’s former CIA).

But ABChasn’t given up entirely on time travel. Just the other day, it debuted a midseason sitcom straight out of the ’80s, called “Work It.” The show, as described by ABC, is about “two unrepentant guy’s guys who, desperate to find work in a tough economy, dress as women to get jobs.”

Before its premiere, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation had already derided it as “archaic,” “caricaturish” and lacking the “smart level of social commentary” of ’80s sitcom “Bosom Buddies.” Yes, that’s right “Bosom Buddies,” in which Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari played two single guys who dressed as chicks so they could live in a women-only residence hotel, was smart social commentary.

Meanwhile, other groups have got their undies in a bunch over the name of ABC chief programmer Paul Lee’s midseason prime-time soap — this one based on the 2008 book “Good Christian B-------.” The network changed the name — first to “Good Christian Belles,” when they were selling it to advertisers. Then, presumably because that name was entirely irony-free and irony is, you know, kind of the point of the show, ABC changed it again to “GCB” — and are counting on fans of the book, and those knicker-knotted special-interest groups, to spread the word as to what it stands for. Anyway, it’s about a reformed high school mean girl who is now a divorced mom and heading back to her home town of Dallas to become the target of former schoolmates she once tormented.

“GCB” isn’t the only midseason entry to have suffered a name change for the worse. NBC has turned late-night comic Chelsea Handler’s book “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea” into a comedy series, only the show is called “Are You There, Chelsea?” because, Handler explained recently, “You can’t put ‘vodka’ in the title for network purposes.” She says she came up with the new title to poke fun of the fact that she’s taken an acting role in the series but is not playing herself — and to “appease the whole anti-vodka situation.”

But NBC, which had trouble in the fall, canceling its ’60s-set “Playboy Club,” its remake of Brit hit “Prime Suspect” and its Hank Azaria workplace rom-com “Free Agents” — is pinning a lot of hope on one of the most-talked-about new series this TV season: “Smash.”

“Smash,” from Spielberg, is about a songwriting duo who are creating a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. It’s been dubbed “ ‘Glee’ for adults,” and former “American Idol” non-winner Katharine McPhee plays a naive Midwesterner (is there any other kind?) who is among those vying for the Marilyn role. Angelica Huston makes her TV series debut as a cynical producer, and Debra Messing (“Will & Grace”) is half of the songwriting duo.

NBC’s taking good care of “Smash,” scheduling it on Monday nights, right after its singing competition “The Voice.” And “The Voice” will get to kick off its second season with a debut in the coveted post-Super Bowl time slot Feb. 5, moving into its regular Monday time slot the next day.

Hoping to attract John Grisham fans, NBC’s midseason drama “The Firm” picks up 10 years after the book — and the Tom Cruise hit flick — with lawyer Mitch McDeere and family emerging from witness protection, where they’ve been hanging out since Mitch brought down his nasty law firm. “The Firm” is getting the once-cushy “ER” slot — Thursday at 10 — which is where NBC’s mangled reboot of Helen Mirren’s “Prime Suspect” died so disappointingly in the fall.

What with baseball playoffs, the World Series and “The X Factor,” gobbling up so much of Fox’s schedule in the fourth quarter, the network decided to hold back some of its most high-profile new programming for midseason, or, as Fox calls it, “American Idol” season.

Kiefer Sutherland, star of “24,” is back on Fox in March, in a thriller called “Touch,” from “Heroes” boss Tim Kring, about a widower who discovers that his mute 11-year-old son can discern patterns that connect seemingly unconnected events.

But first, in about a week, Fox debuts the latest J.J. Abrams drama series, “Alcatraz.” Jorge Garcia of “Lost,” Sarah Jones of “Sons of Anarchy” and Sam Neill of “Jurassic Park” are investigating the shocking reappearance of Alcatraz’s most notorious prisoners — looking not a day older — 50 years after they vanished from the island fortress.

In marked contrast, CBS has nothing big planned for midseason. With its corporate finger so firmly on the pulse of flyover country, CBS is once again the nation’s most-watched television network, attracting an average of just under 13 million people to its prime-time lineup each week — about a quarter of a million more than last fall. CBS also ranks No. 1 among the younger viewers whom advertisers lust after, tied with Fox. The network boasts the country’s most-watched television program — “NCIS” — and the country’s most-watched new program — the raunchy chick-com “2 Broke Girls.”

This week, CBS will unveil the latest of its sitcoms that make TV critics howl in pain. “Rob” stars comic Rob Schneider as a “lifelong bachelor who just married into a tight-knit Mexican American family.” Adding to the insult, CBS is giving “Rob” its cushy Thursday time slot, right after “The Big Bang Theory.”

Then, a week from now, CBS brings back its reality hit “Undercover Boss,” in which various CEOs go undercover to find out which of their middle managers is mucking up their vision and making life a living hell for their hard-working employees. At the end, there’s a big reveal and much hugging between bosses and deserving employees — which is, of course, why they call it “reality” TV.

And then, there’s CW.

The network is not having a good season — but then, why should this one be different? Despite the return to network series TV of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” star Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Ringer,” CW has lost about 20 percent of its audience year to year. And, let’s face it, the final season of “One Tree Hill,” which starts Wednesday, plus the Jan. 18 launch of a new midseason reality series about the creation of a modeling agency, called “Remodeled,” are really unlikely to reverse CW’s ratings plunge.

While the broadcast networks trot out all this new product in the second half of this TV season, they’ll be battling some particularly stiff competition. Here are some of those highlights:

This Sunday, PBS begins airing the much-anticipated Season 2 of its Emmy-winning crunchy-gravel drama “Downton Abbey.” Also this Sunday, Showtime introduces its highly hyped “House of Lies,” in which Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell and their merry band of con artists make life a perfect hell for corporate fat cats.

Later this month, HBO will roll out its much-ballyhooed horse-racing drama “Luck,” from Michael Mann and David Milch, and starring Dustin Hoffman in his TV series debut.

HBO’s coming attractions also include Ricky Gervais’s latest celebrity-strewn comedy, “Life’s Too Short.” This one is a faux-reality series in which, as Gervais has described it, we get to see C-listers “living their life like an open wound.”

On Jan. 1, HBO premiered the buzzy sketch comedy series “Angry Boys,” but, if its ratings for its U.S. run wind up anything like the ratings it got in Australia, where it premiered in May, “Boys” isn’t going to give the broadcast networks any trouble.

As for reality series, broadcasters will be keeping an eye on, among others, A&E’s “Shipping Wars” in which heavy-duty movers battle to land contracts to transport the seemingly un-shippable, and Animal Planet’s “Gator Boys,” about guys who catch and move alligators in Florida, just ’cause.

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