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2008 was a tough year for TV

January 2008 saw television stumble  in the midst of a devastating writers' strike and finish with the  announcement that a Big Three network would be stripping a talk show into the 10 p.m. weekday prime time slot.
/ Source: contributor

January 2008 saw television stumble out of the gate in the midst of a devastating writers' strike and finish with the jaw-dropping announcement that a Big Three network would be stripping a talk show into the 10 p.m. weekday prime time slot.

Television, as viewers have known it, has never seen such uncertainty.

Broadcasters in particular are struggling with an troubled future fueled by a bad economy and poor business choices. Gone are the days when a show like "Seinfeld" or even "The X-Files" is allowed time to find its rhythm and grow into a hit. Instead, a slow start signals a quick end and no promise that the show which comes next will fare any better.

The protracted writers' strike took its toll on a medium already suffering from retreating audiences and advertisers. With writers and producers playing catch-up after the strike and new business models calling for fewer pilots, broadcast television networks weren't left with a lot to choose from for the 2008-2009 TV season. Only CBS managed a traditional fall rollout of new and returning shows — which paid off with the one genuine hit of the season, "The Mentalist," and a strong showing by "Eleventh Hour."

Yet it was a far cry from business as usual.

In 2007, the five broadcasters trotted out a total of 47 new fall series. In 2008, a mere 18 series debuted in the fall, including a limited run edition of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" on Thursday. In addition, the CW started its season renting out its Sunday night space to a group called Media Rights Capital, which promptly folded their poorly received line-up ("Surviving Suburbia," anyone?), forcing The CW to quickly fill space with repeats.

With the 2007-2008 season already in tatters, the four networks simply recycled series that had stunted lives. ABC brought back almost half of the fall 2007 freshman series only to cancel five out of the seven.

'Pushing Daisies' now 'Pushing Up Daisies'
Just how badly the strike impacted the season can be seen through the lens of ABC's shiniest 2007 star, "Pushing Daisies," which lived up to its title after sinking in the ratings this past fall.

The visually stunning series had critics crooning its praises when it premiered in October 2007, but more importantly it earned a loyal and vocal, if small, cult of viewers. The series, about a piemaker who could bring the dead back to life just long enough to solve their murders, became one of the top-rated new shows of the season.

The quality of "Pushing Daisies" was not in question. It earned a dozen Emmy nominations, including outstanding lead actor, supporting actress and writing and picking up an Emmy for outstanding direction.

But the strike stopped the series dead, with no magic pieman to bring it back. Only nine episodes of a 22-episode season were completed before the WGA walk-out, essentially dooming the show. ABC's decision makers opted to shelve the whimsical series until it could be relaunched in the fall.

In a year where the presidential elections took center stage, "Pushing Daisies" returned on Oct. 1 in an atmosphere where viewers were more interested in electing a president than finding out who killed a bee-keeper. Nothing proved that more than when ABC decided it would be the only network to attempt to program against the election furor, putting up "Daisies" against an Obama/McCain debate. The debaters trounced the Pie Man.

Rather than show patience as ratings declined during a tumultuous time, ABC pulled the plug on "Pushing Daisies" after little more than six weeks on the air. Quickly joining the show in the waste bin were "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Eli Stone."

The strike also crippled other promising new series, including NBC's "Chuck" which has yet to fulfill the promise of its earlier launch, and even veteran dramas.

Fox's solid drama "24" never made a showing in 2008, except for a two-hour movie in November that was designed to whet viewer appetite for a series that hasn't been on the air for two years. Jack Bauer returns in January, although ratings may dictate if the ticking clock stops before his next terror-filled day is done.

Only six episodes of the colossal ABC hit "Lost" made it to air in 2008, and many wonder if viewers will remember to tune in to the complicated series when it returns in January after the long hiatus. The penultimate season begins Jan. 21 with 17 episodes.

Certainly hard-core fans of "Lost" will come back. But as a post-strike "Heroes" discovered, the heat might have dissipated from these once sizzling shows.

The writers strike disrupted an entire year, but the recession may be the catalyst for even greater changes in the industry.

Tough financial times led NBC to announce a game-changer: The former rating behemoth, now entrenched as the No. 4 network, announced it would no longer be programming the Monday through Friday 10 p.m. hour with scripted, reality or even newsmagazine shows. Instead, talk show host Jay Leno will be doing a version of his former gig as host of "The Tonight Show."

NBC believes bringing live topical programming during the last hour of prime time will stop people from taping the show for later viewing, making it appointment TV.

And cheap appointment at that, with the talk show's price tag looking like a Macy's post-Christmas closeout sale. The New York Times reports NBC is looking at spending about $2 million a week on the program rather as opposed to the $15 million it costs for an hour of scripted or reality programming.

While the theory behind bringing Leno on may be sound, the actual deployment is flawed. Leno is no Jon Stewart, a man who might actually get people to flee scripted programs at that hour for a searing look at the day's news.

NBC stockholders should be pleased by the short-term pleasure of saving some money, but there's little doubt that when given the option of Leno at large or "CSI," "Law & Order" or certainly "The Mentalist," many viewers will be passing on Jay.

The networks long ago abandoned Saturday night, and it appears that other nights, like the low-rated Fridays, might be considered trim worthy too. News Corp's 20th Century Fox Television studios, which turns out such shows as "24," "My Name is Earl" and "Burn Notice," recently announced it was asking current productions to drop costs by 2 percent.

Although the Screen Actors Guild has asked members to authorize a strike vote, it seems unlikely actors would impose a second blow to an already struggling industry.

As viewers begin 2009 coping with their own economic challenges, the networks, it seems, are right there with them.

Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.