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Adalian Column: Autumn Is the Age of Anxiety

As the networks prepare for the launch of yet another season, what should be a time for celebration feels more like a day of reckoning.

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Even as they squeeze out one last summer vacation jaunt before Labor Day, the citizens of TV land are heavy with anxiety. Not the normal pre-season fears over whether a certain new show will work, or how viewers will react to a time-slot change. This is something different.

“The uncertainty this year is: How much collateral damage was there really from the strike?” said Preston Beckman, executive VP of scheduling at Fox.

Indeed, nearly nine months after the writers went back to work, the TV business is still feeling the aftershocks from their walkout. The way the fall season unfolds will reveal just how serious and long-lasting that ripple effect will be.

Kelly Kahl, the senior executive VP in charge of programming operations at CBS, said that while there’s always pressure in the fall, this year it’s “tempered with a little bit of nervousness” coming off a season during which networks offered up something less than their best efforts for several months.

“The numbers coming back after the strike showed people want their TV,” he said. “But any time you give them a chance to look elsewhere, it’s not ideal.”

Among the unresolved issues causing TV types to book an extra session with their therapist:

- What will happen to the freshman class of 2007? A slew of promising newcomers from last fall—think “Chuck,” “Pushing Daisies,” “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Life,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”—had their initial seasons cut short by the strike. Most have been off the air since March (or earlier), causing network execs to worry that audiences may have simply decided to move on. That’s why many producers are treating their second-season premieres as pilots, and network hypesters are promoting many of the sophomores as brand-new shows. Will viewers who initially flirted with these frosh resume their infatuation, or move on to the sexy new morsels the networks are offering up this fall?

- The disruption in production has given cable networks an extra incentive to roll out programs in the fourth quarter, resulting in a more competitive launch environment. September and October, for example, will see the returns of “Entourage,” “Dexter,” “Californication,” “The Shield” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and the launch of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” TNT’s “Raising the Bar,” HBO’s “True Blood” and USA’s “The Starter Wife.” The Big Five still will get the lion’s share of media attention next month, but their new shows will do battle on a much more crowded field.

- Production delays have made it tougher to build buzz for new shows. Newspaper reporters and critics complain that they haven’t seen pilots for most of the season’s new shows, making it tough to start spreading the gospel of the fall. Similarly, network marketing departments have been forced to get creative with promotions for shows that until recently had shot few if any scenes.

- With development cycles still out of whack, year-round scheduling could finally become a reality—for better or worse. At press time, ABC was poised to greenlight several new series that will hit the air next spring, or possibly in the summer. Fox said it will OK a batch of new pilots by December. NBC is equally committed to ignoring the traditional development calendar.

“We’re not planning on putting on fewer new shows next season,” said ABC Executive VP Jeff Bader. “We’ll just put them on later.”

While this all sounds good on paper, the short-term result will be more uncertainty. How will viewers respond to a half-dozen new shows rolling out between January and April? If networks finally decide to put first-run scripted shows on in the summer, will audiences be there?

Adding to all this pre-season unease is the fact that the networks aren’t taking a uniform approach to the fall.

ABC and Fox are limiting their fall at-bats to just a couple of shows, saving their best efforts for the second half of the season. NBC has a traditional slate of new shows, but many of them were produced without pilots or have had longer-than-usual incubations, leading to industry puzzlement over how they’ll turn out. The CW is putting all of its eggs in a basket marked “90210.” And CBS rushed together a blend of comedies and dramas it could have produced any year.

Despite the nagging sense among TV types that Judgment Day is nigh, there are those in the community who aren’t ready to swallow the cyanide pill just yet.

Mitch Metcalf, who oversees scheduling for NBC, takes solace in the strong early ratings for the network’s coverage of the Beijing Games.

“The fact that viewers are flocking to the Olympics is just a great sign,” Mr. Metcalf said. “I think the effects of the strike are starting to wear off and we’re working through a lot of the kinks.”

And another longtime network executive argues optimistically that the cornucopia of strategies will offer some invaluable insights into the TV business—and could result in fundamental, positive shifts in how programmers approach their jobs.

If ABC and Fox have particularly good years, for example, it will likely spur more networks to move away from the urge to frontload the season with fourth-quarter premieres. An NBC triumph—which, for the fourth-place network, would simply be climbing out of the Nielsen basement—might cause other executives to man up and order more projects directly to series.

There’s also a sense around Hollywood that, while many personal rivalries still rage on between individual personalities, the networks have decided to cut back on the public bashing of their rivals. You don’t hear quite as many boastful predictions of ratings supremacy or gleeful snickers about a competitor’s record-low ratings. Non-NBC executives actually seem excited over how well the Olympics are doing.

ABC’s Mr. Bader wistfully wondered if NBC’s summer strength might not be a sign of things to come.

“I would like to think that the surprise of this year is that the networks come back stronger than ever,” he said.

Who knows? Maybe something good will come out of the strike after all.

Comments (1)

Jason:

You know what these networks could do more than anything to help? Get back to airing those corny but effective fall campaign ads with cast members of all the shows, a simple title of the program, and time and premiere date plastered on the screen too. ABC has a really good one on their website right now with Earth Wind and Fire's classic hit September as the theme song. The CW's Good Night campaign is also good.

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