Many directions, fewer scripts

Fall lineups heavy with high concepts, light on costs

Looking for trends in the new TV season? They've been surprisingly easy to spot.

You can call it the season of non-American stars, considering the number of dramas with lead roles played by Brits and Australians with a facility for faking American accents (HR 5/15).

You can call it the season of high-concept shows. Every network has one. ABC has a guy whose touch gives life and death ("Pushing Daisies"). CBS has a vampire detective ("Moonlight"). NBC has a time traveler ("Journeyman") and a woman with high-tech powers ("Bionic Woman"). Fox has an immortal cop ("New Amsterdam"). And the CW has a young man in the employ of the devil ("Reaper").

The season also continues the trend of the vanishing half-hour comedy. A decade ago, NBC started the fall season with 18 live-action comedies. That's two more than all five networks combined have on their schedules for fall 2007.

Of course, each network has its own spin on the new season. Fox calls its schedule "stable and vibrant." CBS says it is being "daring and different." CW says it seeks "attitude and a sense of fun." ABC went for "memorable characters." NBC, on the other hand, says it is "bulking up," a phrase more commonly associated with the intake of fiber.

Nobody is calling this the Cheap Season, but there is a strong case to be made for that, as well.

NBC made headlines when it announced that, to trim programming costs, it would launch into primetime most nights with unscripted fare. The new schedule shows that it made good on this goal. Except for Thursday nights, when NBC has its lone comedy block, every night begins with reality or news features.

But — surprise — NBC is not alone. The other networks also have trimmed expenses in their leadoff spots. No network begins more than three nights a week with a scripted series. Of the 34 shows that initiate primetime throughout the week, only 14 are scripted dramas or comedies. On weekends, the only scripted leadoff show is the CBS "Crimetime Saturday" retreads.

Reality shows cut costs and, as long as viewers flock to them, it would be silly not to serve up as many as the public can swallow. But the networks have found other ways to shrink program costs.

The decision to put little-known actors into lead and supporting roles in most new shows represents a huge change in network philosophy. This fall, you can count on Mickey Mouse's hand the number of new series with a big-name star in the lead role: "Dirty Sexy Money" with Peter Krause, "Back to You" with Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton and "Canterbury's Law" with Julianna Margulies. There's a smattering of A-listers among the ensemble casts, such as Jimmy Smits in "Cane," but these, too, are dominated by unknowns.

The conventional wisdom had been that big names attract viewers and — particularly in the fall when there is so much confusion and so many new shows — having an established star was deemed an important way to set a program apart from the others.

Now it seems like hiring a big name to front a show is counterproductive. For one thing, the celebrity hype machine thrives on the introduction of new faces and bodies. For another, unknowns work for less. At the same time, as such shows as "Heroes" and "Ugly Betty" proved last season and "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost" showed the season before, if the concept is right and the execution is smart, unknown actors don't stay unknown for very long.

Maybe it was that way all along. Or maybe it is the ubiquitous quality of mass-media promotion, which now includes broadband, cell phones and a cacophony of celebrity-driven quasi-news shows. Whatever the case, stars have become increasingly easy to manufacture and, consequently, increasingly disposable.

Not that any of this will greatly change the competitive dynamic in the year ahead.

Thursday night will remain competitive, particularly among ABC, CBS and NBC. Perhaps for that reason, none of these three networks plans to radically alter its lineup.

Wednesday, on the other hand, will be the night that is up for grabs. ABC rolled the dice with the seldom-seen strategy of wiping the slate clean and placing three new series on the schedule. NBC has two newcomers, and CBS, Fox and CW have one each. Put another way, one-third of all new series on ABC, CBS and NBC combined are on Wednesday night.

Tuesday also will see changes which may result in the most difficult choice for viewers. At 9 p.m., both "Chuck" on NBC and "Reaper" on CW offer viewers shows with offbeat humor. But can even one of them survive the competition from ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and Fox's "House"?

Meanwhile, Friday night promises to be more of a viewer magnet than in the past. NBC's decision to move "Friday Night Lights" to Friday will make it a destination night for core fans of that show. At the same time, "Women's Murder Club" and "Moonlight" offer the prospect of more intriguing TV than the night has seen for a while.
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