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Fall TV season adds high-concept shows

Time-traveling reporter, bounty hunter for devil among new plots
/ Source: The Associated Press

Old friend Jerry Seinfeld walked onto a Radio City Music Hall stage during NBC’s yearly sales presentation to advertisers last week not to tout a new show, but his appearance in some gussied-up promos for a new movie.

Bad enough that he was a physical reminder of how far fourth-place NBC had tumbled from the heights of “Seinfeld.” He had to talk about it, too, reminiscing about days when people watched what NBC offered, “or lived in fear of the consequences.”

“Sometimes I feel like the whole industry just picked up and joined the circus,” he said.

Uncertainty and modest expectations were the backdrop of the annual week of fall-schedule announcements. Viewership is down this spring, time-shifting is up and the whole notion of watching television is changing before our eyes. NBC, CBS and Fox cut the time of their usually elaborate sales presentations nearly in half.

Only three years ago CBS entertained advertisers with The Who. This year, networks couldn’t shuffle their customers out to open bars fast enough.

It was enough time for some clear trends to emerge that viewers will see in a few months.

High conceptA simple family or police precinct isn’t enough anymore. Networks sought out plenty of fanciful, suspend-your-disbelief ideas for series, particularly after seeing how NBC’s “Heroes” proved the surprise hit of this season.

This fall you’ll be able to watch a man who can bring back the dead with one touch, a time-traveling reporter, a modern-day vampire, a bounty hunter for the devil, a 400-year-old immortal man, a family of cavemen and a bionic woman. There are cruel twists, too; the immortal man becomes mortal if he falls in love; the man who can raise the dead kills them again permanently with another touch, a complicating factor when his late childhood sweetheart is involved.

That latter show, ABC’s “Pushing Daisies,” is the most intriguing.

The flip side is that few of the new shows are designed with family viewing in mind, leaving unfilled a hole created by the departures of “Gilmore Girls” and “7th Heaven.” That’s why “Kid Nation,” CBS’ unscripted series about a group of youngsters taking over a ghost town and running it without adult supervision, is a potential hit.

Serial dramasThere were two lessons from this season that television executives clearly didn’t forget: Don’t overdo the serial dramas with complex story lines that require a serious viewer commitment, and keep interruptions for successful ones to a minimum.

More dramas — and network TV is primarily in the drama business these days — will tell stories that won’t baffle the viewer who happened to miss last week’s episode.

Three successful serials were particularly hurt this season by long intervals with reruns. That was fatal to CBS’ “Jericho,” which was canceled. The other two, ABC’s “Lost” and NBC’s “Heroes,” will run their new episodes uninterrupted next season, following the model of Fox’s “24.” So will the CW’s “One Tree Hill.” CBS will try the same thing with “Swing Town,” one of its most promising newcomers.

“I don’t know if we know the ideal model yet for each of them,” said Kelly Kahl, chief of scheduling at CBS. “We’re looking, experimenting, trying to find the best way to do it.”

No laughsThe slow death of the network sitcom is continuing.

Next fall ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW will introduce fewer comedies (6) than unscripted series (7). New dramas outnumber new comedies by 17-6. NBC, the home of “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show,” won’t have any new sitcoms in the fall. The network has a hard enough time trying to find an audience for a Thursday night comedy lineup that gets critical praise, the idea of finding new ones seemed too daunting.

“They’re gun-shy, frankly,” said Stacey Lynn Schulman, media analyst for HI: Human Insight. “They’ve tried and tried and tried, and nothing works.”

Fox’s “Back to You” will be followed most closely. It has proven sitcom performers in Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton starring as TV news anchors in Pittsburgh.

Oh, and don’t expect much from “Cavemen.” The few clips ABC presented made the insurance ads seem brilliant.

Commercial trendsWith an estimated one-fifth of American homes expected to have digital video recorders by fall, some of the most creative thinking at networks these days is devoted to finding ways to deliver commercial messages that people won’t fast-forward past.

The CW will experiment with five-second commercials and an entertainment newsmagazine that incorporates sponsorship instead of commercials. Fox has tried inserting entertaining “shorts” within commercial pods, which is where NBC will place the small skits created by Seinfeld. Several networks have tried backloading commercials — letting a show run longer without ads at the beginning with more ads in the second half.

Later this month, Nielsen Media Research for the first time releases ratings for commercial minutes.

Friday night lightsNetworks essentially turned out the lights on Saturdays a few years ago, and it was feared they were going in the same direction on Fridays. Judging by the schedules, they seem to at least be making an effort on Fridays. That’s where Fox is putting its “American Idol” spinoff that tries to find a good new band. CBS’ vampire series will be tried on Friday, too.

It’s also where NBC has moved its critically acclaimed drama “Friday Night Lights,” in the hope of finding an audience.

Sex sellsLast year NBC offered two series about backstage life at a late-night network comedy show, and only one survived. This year ABC and NBC each have shows purported to be the next-generation “Sex and the City,” one by the woman who wrote the book behind the HBO hit, the other by the man who turned it into a series. The ABC series stars Lucy Liu; NBC’s has Brooke Shields.

The early line? NBC’s “Lipstick Jungle” looks better.