Networks Opt for Heavy Dose of Unreality

Rash Report: An Upfront Presentation Wrap-Up

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Creators and critics, buyers and sellers, and plenty of movers and shakers gathered in one of the world's coastal cultural capitals this week to unveil and schedule video artistry. Sure, that could describe the network upfront presentations, but it also applies to the concurrent conclave in Cannes, now hosting its 61st annual film festival.
The CW's 'Surviving The Filthy Rich:' Highlighting the young, beautiful and wealthy instead of the down-and-out.
The CW's 'Surviving The Filthy Rich:' Highlighting the young, beautiful and wealthy instead of the down-and-out. Credit: Michael Desmond/The CW

Both events are the year's most important industry intersection of the cultural and the commercial. But the key difference is that the movie industry screens full films, as opposed to the snippets or concepts that have come to define the TV meetings. Film distributors have a decided advantage over the marketers and media agencies trying to make multimillion-dollar decisions this week.

Suiting the economy
But enough was revealed by the broadcast networks to see several themes emerge. Most apparent is that at this time of political, societal and economic malaise, the networks think the only reality viewers can handle is reality TV. Indeed, next season's new scripted series rarely reflect the deep divides in economic opportunities and outcomes that have been the backdrop of this season's most compelling dramatic series, the 2008 Democratic race between Senators Clinton and Obama.

Because today's America of sub-prime mortgages, higher gas and food prices, and lower consumer confidence isn't prime-time material, Roseanne or Ralph Kramden need not apply. At least not on the CW, whose target is most at risk of economic dislocation. Instead, the locations of Beverly Hills and Palm Beach are like the Gotham "Gossip Girl" setting, as the network's new "90210" and "Surviving the Filthy Rich" highlight the young, beautiful and wealthy instead of the down-and-out.

Spreading the wealth
But the have-nots won't be completely invisible. It's just that we will view them through the eyes of the rich: Two midseason reality series, Fox's "Secret Millionaire" and NBC's "The Philanthropist" are dramatic takes on obtaining some of the concentration of wealth and sharing it with the common folk.

What many of the people struggling in this economy want is just a job. The new season does reflect the new workplace, real or imagined. "Stylista," the CW's new career competition that plays as a cross between Bravo's "Project Runway" and hit film "The Devil Wears Prada," plays to the widespread feeling of being powerless against bully bosses. And NBC's midseason spin-off of "The Office" is indicative of how many view corporate America as inane, if not insane.

Outsourcing
This public perception of a bleak job market is often blamed on outsourcing. And while the new network shows don't explore this, they do practice it, at least in terms of concept and ownership. The CW, for instance, agreed last week to have independent production company Media Rights Capital program their entire Sunday lineup. And many of the new shows appeared overseas first: CBS exported "The Ex-List" idea from Israel while NBC went down under for "Kath and Kim" to create an Americanized version of the most popular Australian sitcom ever. CBS's "Eleventh Hour" and "Worst Week Ever," as well as ABC's "Life on Mars," aren't from another planet, just content-rich England.

The global auspices of several shows are joined by other-worldly sci-fi as another major trend. Fox in particular anticipates people wanting escapist drama to contrast with these tough times. Midseason's "Dollhouse" and fall's "Fringe," the latest from TV genius JJ Abrams, will try to channel the creative (and ratings) excellence of "The X-Files." Less science but just as fictional will be character-driven dramas on CBS (Simon Baker in "The Mentalist") and NBC (Christian Slater in "My Own Worst Enemy" and KITT, the talking car on "Knight Rider").

Few laughs
Previous economic downturns have led to laughs, whether from reflecting the bad times, such as the everyman philosophizing of Archie Bunker or George Sanford in the stagflation '70s, or the aspirations and irritations of post-recession good times, such as mid-'80s Cliff Huxtable or mid-'90s Jerry Seinfeld. Few new smiles will be found on the fall schedule, however, as this decade still searches for its seminal sitcom. ABC and the CW didn't even give it a try. And those networks' rivals weren't much bolder, with NBC's aforementioned "Kath and Kim" and Fox's "Do Not Disturb" doubled by CBS's "Project Gary" and "Worst Week Ever."

To be sure, the unreality TV represented by this year's new dramas and sitcoms is endemic to the genre. But the suspension of disbelief for each show seems to be matched by each network operating as if an uninterrupted season of mostly old shows will keep old viewers, if not add new ones. This may be true, as several series were truncated before they could gain traction due to the writers strike. But sometimes the biggest risk is not taking a risk at all, and what's most striking about the post-strike season is how little change there is from schedules that resulted in dizzying declines for broadcast TV.

Two other new shows will debut this fall, and their titles indicate the outcome of how each network responded in the wake of TV's tumult: "Opportunity Knocks," an upbeat ABC game show about beating the odds by paying attention to those close to you, and "Crusoe," NBC's update of the Daniel Defoe classic about being marooned.
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