Commentary: Happy endings on TV are no guarantee that networks will live happily ever after

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Viewers, we're told, want to escape.

"People need to escape," NBC co-chair Marc Graboff said when the financial markets began to collapse last year. "(NBC's) programming strategy is to find some shows where people can tune in and then mentally tune out."

CW entertainment president Dawn Ostroff concurred. "A lot of times, when the country goes through times like these, having entertainment be escapist is what our viewers look for," she said.

"Comfort food," CBS' Les Moonves said when asked why his network's shows were performing relatively well compared with his competitors' this season.

Producers on current shows are being told to keep their subject matter light, as if writers should use the Dow to calculate each episode's pathos-to-comedy ratio. One need only glance at next season's TV drama pilots to see that networks are banking on traditional closed-ended procedural dramas that have the potential to provide satisfying happy endings on a weekly basis.

Even this year's Super Bowl telecast was elevated to something akin to national public therapy when NBC Universal sports chairman Dick Ebersol declared that the NFL (and, by extension, NBC) "should feel a great sense of pride in providing a day of enjoyment to American families, especially those who are struggling in these difficult times," as if the game were a shining beacon of hope in viewers' dim lives and its producers were not wealthy entertainers but rather humble missionaries healing a scarred country.

Network leaders should stop psychoanalyzing the viewing public and justifying content decisions as somehow protecting their wounded psyche.

Programmers forget that the content trend toward darker and serialized shows -- the one now ebbing out of style -- wasn't born out of the stock market peak of 2007. It came after 9/11 and the bursting of the Internet bubble, during the previous period of stock-market lows.

Fox's "24," FX's "The Shield," ABC's "Lost" and Sci Fi's "Battlestar Galactica" helped usher in an era of dark, complex, groundbreaking, critically acclaimed and conspiratorial action dramas that were major hits for their networks.

During the same period, Fox's ultra-sunny "American Idol" took off, as did ABC's fairly chipper "Desperate Housewives."

The point isn't that dark times produce more gritty, realistic hits. The point is that recession-era successes are just as likely to reflect the mood of the country as to act as a lighthearted tonic. Truly escapist TV is any show that's so compelling viewers forget they're on the couch.

The "Americans want escapism and happy endings" mantra is wishful thinking. With the broadcast ratings woes, it's TV executives who want to escape. Light and frivolous fare arguably is easier to create and cheaper to produce, promote and sell to advertisers. A "back to basics" mantra is very To Do List-friendly for networks because "the basics" are known qualities, but true progression requires creativity and risk.

Networks instead should move forward and search for ways to advance the game, if not by leaps and bounds then at least with subtle steps. You don't need to call Shawn Ryan and ask him to reinvent the Western (though it would be rather cool if you did). And you don't need to be HBO, which is piloting "Game of Thrones," the first high-fantasy drama produced by a major network in years.

But ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson was correct when he said last month at the TV critics press tour that the programs that have benefited his network most have been those that took bold "swings at the plate" creatively.

Of course, in addition to some potentially unique shows, ABC bought a Jerry Bruckheimer crime drama pilot about amateur detectives and another drama about an 11-year-old who helps his older brother solve crimes.

There's certainly nothing wrong with covering your bets when such new procedurals as CBS' "The Mentalist" and Fox's "Fringe" are performing so well. But in the fall, networks might find it tough to get a hit by standing where lightning just struck.
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