In Depth

Adalian Column: Polishing Up the Crystal Ball

I should know better.

A year ago at this time, while working for Daily Variety, I joined my colleague Michael Schneider in coming up with a list of eight predictions for 2008. Among our in-print forecasts: The Olympics would be a pop-culture bust, fans of “Lost” would revolt over an absence of answers to their burning questions, a hosting change would rile “The View” and one of the network entertainment presidents would be fired or quit.

Oops.

I’d like to say our other four predictions fared better, but alas, the morning show wars didn’t really heat up, networks haven’t starting making their shows available via cable’s on-demand platform and there wasn’t a new reality hit along the lines of “Survivor” or “Dancing With the Stars.” We did, however, correctly call the rise in international co-productions (Go, “Flashpoint”!).

Common sense would dictate that I quit while I’m behind and just get out of the crystal-ball business altogether. Instead, pride compels me to try once more, if only to prove that last year’s batch of stinkers was all the fault of my former co-worker.

Here, then, are nine completely Schneider-free predictions for 2009:

Conan O’Brien will do fine as host of “The Tonight Show”—but you probably won’t be able to tell it from the media coverage. Now that Jay Leno is out of the equation, the odds are even better that Mr. O’Brien will do a good job maintaining NBC’s traditional leadership role in late night. His ratings probably will be down compared with Mr. Leno’s current average—but guess what? Mr. Leno’s own ratings are off notably from where they were a few years ago, and had he stayed on as “Tonight” host for a couple more years, they likely would have continued to drift downward.

Unfortunately, unless Mr. O’Brien defies Nielsen gravity and actually shows some improvement at 11:35 p.m., he may have to deal with a flurry of stories declaring NBC insiders are “worried” about their decision to hand “The Tonight Show” to him. Many of the reporters who cover television had already decided that NBC made a big mistake swapping Mr. O’Brien for Mr. Leno, and they’ll be anxious to prove their predictions correct.

My fondest wish is that everyone finally realizes that the late-night wars ended a long time ago—and everybody won.

Changes will come to the studios that produce TV shows. NBC Universal got the ball rolling last month with its decision to fold Universal Media Studios and NBC Entertainment into a single unit run by Angela Bromstad. Word is that Disney may do something similar with ABC and ABC Studios. Don’t be shocked if similar shakeups occur at 20th Century Fox TV, Warner Bros. Television, Sony Pictures Television or CBS Paramount Network Television in 2009. All four units have been remarkably stable over the past five to 10 years, but nothing in TV stays that quiet forever.

The digital transition will be a big yawn. Sure, some septuagenarians will complain about missing out on a new episode of “Deal or No Deal.” And no doubt there will be those in Washington who will find a way to blame the networks for not doing enough to educate the public about the switch. But the bottom line is, the vast majority of viewers will never know anything happened on Feb. 17.

“Friday Night Lights” will fade away. This is one prediction I hope to be wrong about. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any evidence that the show’s fall run on DirecTV caused any sort of spike in subscriptions for the satellite service. Worse, the DirecTV run of “FNL” generated precious little buzz, while NBC doesn’t seem to be doing much to promote the premiere of season three on its airwaves. Game over—sadly.

Oprah will find a way to stay on regular TV. Unless President-elect Barack Obama finds a role for Oprah Winfrey in government, there’s no reason for her to walk away from the massive platform that broadcast TV provides. The daily exposure she gets from her syndicated show helps drive the rest of her empire, from O Magazine to her satellite radio channel. Why can’t Ms. Winfrey figure out a way to stay on broadcast TV while expanding her presence on cable via the Oprah Winfrey Network?

A major soap opera will call it quits. This should have happened years ago, given the sorry ratings for the genre. But the folks who produce daytime dramas are crafty souls, and so far they’ve found a way to reduce costs just enough to remain viable. That can’t continue forever. In soap circles, “Guiding Light” is the show considered most vulnerable, despite a much-hyped new production model introduced last year.

The CW will change its name, its owners or its mandate. The “Gossip Girl” network had a nice fall, that little Sunday snafu with Media Rights Capital notwithstanding. But its overall ratings continue to put it in the “struggling” category. And while CBS and Warner Bros. insist they’re all on the same page regarding the network, Warner’s Christmas Eve lawsuit against CBS regarding “Two and a Half Men” shows the two companies aren’t on the best of terms.

Since a name-change to The WB remains a long shot, look for The CW to do something it should have done at its birth and shift its focus to unscripted dramas like “The Hills.” After all, if NBC thinks it can only afford to air 10 hours of scripted shows a week, why should The CW be expected to attempt more than four or five hours of scripted programming?

Summer 2009 will see a slew of innovative new reality concepts. With networks trying to recapture the unscripted sizzle, new executives in charge of unscripted at three of the five major networks, plus the lack of any breakout reality hits in several years, broadcasters will be forced to take some big chances again in a format that has grown even more conventional and predictable than the sitcom.

Of course, 2009 is kicking off with NBC’s “Superstars of Dance,” so perhaps I’m overestimating the networks’ ability to step outside their comfort zones.

“Big Brother” will win the Emmy for reality show. OK, so that’s not going to happen. But it should. After all, the folks on “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” get months to craft hundreds of hours of footage into watchable storylines. The gang at “Brother,” by contrast, manage to crank out one of the most addictive hours on TV with just a couple days’ worth of turnaround. That should count for something.