tv reporter

Nets giving status quo an extreme makeover

So let me get this straight: The steamy show about swinging couples during the 1970s is on CBS, and the multicamera sitcom set in a Pittsburgh TV newsroom is on Fox, right?

There was something decidedly hinky about the 2007-08 upfront presentations. For all the sophistication they bring to scheduling, the networks increasingly have lost sight of something more fundamental: branding. How else to explain buttoned-up CBS ready to rack up affiliate blackouts with "Swingtown" while Fox's "Back to You" is a sitcom so traditional that "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" could have been its lead-in.

It's as if no broadcaster is content to be itself anymore. It wasn't that long ago that each of them carved out distinct identities based on a history of creative choices. NBC was the king of comedy; now it isn't introducing any new ones in the fall. ABC once had a blue-collar sensibility from "Roseanne" to "Monday Night Football"; now it tilts more female than Lifetime. CBS' embrace of edginess feels like a middle-ager buying a Porsche, while previously wacky Fox's move in the opposite direction is pure Volvo.

CBS is doing the most self-conscious makeover, and marketing challenges notwithstanding, it's probably a good idea. For all its vaunted stability, the network's shows are like wallpaper: Everyone sees them, but no one remembers them. To boost the viewer engagement advertisers want, they're trying to spike the watercooler with their own fizzy concoctions.

But do they have the goods? At first glance, spicy "Cane" and provocative "Kid Nation" show promise, but who knows about the rest? Music-infused "Viva Laughlin" may get a lot of attention, but it looked really flat. Watching characters warble pop tunes offhandedly — call it Tune-rette's syndrome — was more off-putting than intriguing.

Meanwhile, Fox seems to want to be CBS, a far cry from the wild-and-woolly network it once was. Fox is clearly — though not necessarily intentionally — defying what may be the biggest trend of the fall: the long-awaited moratorium on the formulaic procedural. "Canterbury's Law" is standard-issue courtroom fare, "K-Ville" is vintage buddy cop, and "Back" is comedy 101. Given all the odd shows out there, staying tried and true might actually work, but Fox is the last network you would expect to do that.

NBC deserves praise for establishing the only recent comedies that have a real shot at classic status in "The Office" and "30 Rock." So why stray from that core competency by launching no new comedies in the fall? What's worse, why bring Jerry Seinfeld to your upfront to remind viewers of how far you are straying by belittling the network on your own stage?

Meanwhile, ABC has stolen NBC's upscale skew from right under its nose, only attracting male viewers doesn't seem much of a concern. Don't let "Grey's Anatomy" lead-out "Big Shots" fool you; that male cast is eye candy for women, as is testosterone-deficient "Private Practice" and "Women's Murder Club."

Lacking a single decent half-hour, ABC also covets NBC's comedy chops. The network seems downright ballsy for launching three new comedies in the fall given the genre's current paucity. But the results are mixed: "Sam I Am" has a winsome premise and star in Christina Applegate, but "Cavemen" looked like a disaster. Geico's gecko could have made a better sitcom.

Perhaps the most bizarre announcement of the week was something that barely registered to most people: the midseason scheduling of "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" on Sunday at 9 p.m., which Fox made a point of noting was the time slot for "The X-Files." As if its fans were still hanging around that night just waiting for a show to reappear in its mold.

Appealing to some sense of legacy struck a discordant note during a week when the networks willed themselves into a state of amnesia.