So many fall shows, so little chance of a hit

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Some things just elude prognostication. Middle East politics, Midwest weather patterns and college basketball's March Madness tournament, for example, are so unpredictable that to impose any set of expectations on what the future might bring is futile.

Add to that list the fortunes of the new primetime lineups for the fall season now getting under way. Anticipating which shows will catch fire or fade out has proved a near-impossible task in recent years, which of course stops absolutely nobody from trying. Including me.

But my gut tells me -- you didn't think I was going to use my brain, did you? -- that there in fact may be no new hits at all this fall. It's not as preposterous as it sounds, considering that we're coming off a summer season that gave us not one new clear standout. NBC's "America's Got Talent" may have led the pack, but it didn't amass anywhere near an audience to qualify for true hit status.

Is it possible that the sheer clutter of the fall schedule, combined with distractions from other mediums, could conspire to extend the summer doldrums? That doesn't mean everything in sight will be canceled, but perhaps we've come to the point where diminished returns become the norm and expecting a new series to rack up 20 million viewers is asking too much.

Increasing the degree of difficulty this year was the fact that there was no single project that attracted positive buzz. But that didn't exactly help UPN's "Everybody Hates Chris" last year, so perhaps the buzz-free environment actually is a blessing.

There are certain shows getting plenty of preseason attention, including ABC's "Ugly Betty," NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and CBS' "The Class." They might seem the likeliest candidates for success, but doesn't it always seem to be the show that comes out of nowhere that becomes a hit?

That's why I would stack my chips on shows that are managing to stay below the radar. NBC's "Heroes," ABC's "Help Me Help You" and CBS' "Jericho" come to mind. I haven't heard a single word of advance praise for ABC's "Men in Trees," and it's scheduled on that gulag known as Friday night, but that's exactly why I'm keeping an eye on this series. I thought the pilot was very well written, and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" started in the same time slot, too, don't forget.

My gut also has a funny feeling about some midseason entries such as ABC's "Traveler" and NBC's "The Black Donnellys." Not that I've actually seen either of those shows. It's just that with every passing season I become more and more convinced that it would be smart for a network to hold back a significant amount of new programming to distribute later in the year, where it can stand alone and not have to vie for attention with 20 other series.

Fox's "The O.C.," ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and NBC's "Deal or No Deal" are just the latest examples of the notion that the fall may be its own worst enemy. Is the failure rate of new broadcast product so high because the programs are inherently bad -- well, yeah, to some extent -- or do they just end up canceling each other out in the din of September, when viewers can't possibly focus on this chaotic cluster?

Maybe the TV industry should take a cue from its film counterparts and stagger more release dates throughout the year and spread out its marketing dollars in kind. The hits may come more easily if primetime is given a little room to breathe.
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