No big changes for fall TV, television professor says

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

With only six new comedies scheduled to premiere on FOX, ABC, NBC and CBS in September, the fall 2004 network television schedule is filled with the familiar - thanks in part to executives being content to leave daring shows to cable in the wake of last February's Super Bowl halftime show, says a University of North Texas professor of radio, television and film.

Dr. Kenneth Loomis, an assistant professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film, says the new programs being introduced this fall illustrate that those who develop network television series are increasingly "playing it safe."

Original series on cable television are including the profanity, violence and other material that the networks can't tolerate - not only because of Federal Communication Commission standards, but because advertisers may not approve, Loomis says.

"Networks primarily make money from advertisers so they have to have a large number of people watching a show to see the advertising. That cuts into the creativity," he says, noting that Janet Jackson's exposure of her breast during CBS' broadcast of the Super Bowl halftime show put the decency standards back into the public eye.

"The issue wasn't so much the nudity - it was the fact that it was unexpected," he says. "People have less tolerance for profanity, nudity and violence when they are watching network TV than when they are watching cable, so many of those watching the halftime show felt their expectations were violated."

He adds that HBO, which had almost twice the amount of Emmy nominations this year than second-place NBC, makes most of its money from subscribers, not advertisers. Having the freedom to depend on income from sources other than advertising has resulted in many edgy shows on the channel, such as The Sopranos and Sex and the City, he says.

Unlike these shows, the new shows premiering on NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX in September are "safe bets" with audiences and advertisers, Loomis says.

He points to the war on terrorism as one reason why so few new sitcoms are on the network schedules.

"The sitcom revival during the 1970s was during a light time for America, but now we're in a heavy time. The networks are sensing that the marketplace isn't in the mood for new sitcoms," he says.

Almost all of the six sitcoms being introduced on the four major networks star familiar television actors, including Matt LeBlanc in the Friends spin-off Joey, Jason Alexander in CBS' Listen Up, and John Goodman as both the star of Center of the Universe on CBS and the primary voice talent on NBC's Father of the Pride.

Reality programs, which are less expensive to produce than other types of shows, comprise the bulk of the networks' fall schedules. Thirteen new or returning shows are  scheduled to air between August and December, including are copies of programs that have been successful.

"The Benefactor on ABC is a response to the success of The Apprentice on NBC," he says. "Reality TV has essentially replaced sitcoms. They have the same humorous appeal, and we get attached to the individuals just as we get attached to the sitcom characters."

He says some of the new drama series premiering in September are similar to successful shows. CBS' casino drama Dr. Vegas copies NBC's Las Vegas and NBC's Medical Investigation copies CBS' CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. CSI, in turn, will have two spin-offs on the fall schedule - CSI: Miami and CSI: NY.

Loomis adds that with cable stations and networks premiering new series at other times of the year besides September, the fall television season no longer has the importance that it once did. He says the trend started with the premiere of Survivor in May 2000.

"It was a summertime show that came out of nowhere and became a hit, and started mainstream reality television," he says. "Now instead of being a throwaway time for reruns, summer is more of a training ground for new series. If a series is successful in the summer, it will come back in the fall."

However, he predicts that in the next 10 years, "appointment television" - where viewers set aside time to watch their favorite shows when they are scheduled to air on the networks - will be reduced, thanks to digital video recorders like TiVo and other new technology that will allow viewers to download shows and watch whenever it is convenient for them.

"Cable television series are also being repeated in the same week or day as the first airing, and now networks are starting to do the same thing with their series," Loomis says. "Our viewing practices are changing because we have more options on TV, and more options for entertainment in the evening other than watching TV. That, coupled with new technology, allows us to take greater control of the television that we do watch."

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