Broadcast Fall Prime-Time Lineup Gives Us Reason to Believe

New Shows May Prove the Power of Innovation and Quality Content

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At first I couldn't identify the vaguely familiar feeling, then was reluctant to validate it, but finally had to accept it.
Primetime TV 2006
Upcoming shows such as 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,' 'Smith,' 'Heroes,' 'The Nine,' 'Kidnapped' and '30 Rock' are generating much higher levels of interest from the audience as well as advertisers. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
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As strange as it is to admit, it's true: I'm looking forward to the fall TV season. As in prime-time broadcast network TV. And I don't think I'm alone. Perhaps the old box has some life in it yet.

Original ideas
Actually, it's not difficult to figure out why this year's crop of offerings from the Big Four networks seems to be soliciting more interest than recent seasons past: The quality of programming is higher, the ideas more original (even if the formats are derivative, with more serialized dramas a la "24" and "Lost") and the casting more intriguing (Ray Liotta, James Woods, Tina Fey, Jeremy Sisto). More than a few of the shows will disappoint, and some will be all but officially canceled before you finish reading this column. But the sense of excitement that surrounds the new season is proof that product quality and innovation still count.

Movie business similarity
It's not dissimilar from the movie business, where the decline in box-office receipts turned out to be as much a judgment on the quality of the films being produced as it was a statement on the explosion of entertainment options or the decline in the theatergoing experience. High ticket prices and stale popcorn played their part, but audiences mostly just wanted good movies. Or if not good, at least fun ("Pirates" comes to mind).

Like many people I know (admittedly a largely coastal, media-centric lot), my prime-time TV viewing in recent years has been largely limited to HBO Sunday series and Yankee games, with an occasional newsmagazine segment thrown in. I took it almost as a sign of growing up; the new fall season once held as much promise as the Christmas tree, yet the excitement predictably dimmed a bit each year. Strange, then, to suddenly find myself paging through fall-preview guides and highlighting the network offerings I can't wait to sample: "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "Smith," "Heroes," "The Nine," "Kidnapped," "30 Rock."

That's not to say concerns about the future of TV have been overplayed. Quite the contrary. The sad truth is no matter how strong their lineups, the networks still have to contend with the disintegration of the business model that served them so well for so long. More eyeballs are good, but they no longer translate directly into advertising dollars. No matter how you look at it, the effectiveness and efficiency of network TV advertising will still be called into question, and the medium's underlying issues remain critical.

Skipping over the ads
I, for one, will watch almost all of these new TV shows by programming my DVR and replaying them on my schedule, skipping over the advertising. No point, of course, in pretending I'm an average consumer; one of the perks of my job is free access to Adcritic.com, after all, and I set aside time each week specifically to watch commercials.

But many others with DVRs will also bypass the ads. Or they'll download the shows to watch on iPods, a video platform more of my friends are surprised to find themselves hooked on despite initial skepticism about strained eyes and cramped hands. Or, as viewers have always done, they'll simply switch channels or leave the room during breaks -- a reality the networks and their advertisers will finally be forced to confront thanks to commercial ratings.

No doubt some of my excitement is merely a Pavlovian response to the saturation efforts of the networks. Stories and ads promoting the new network schedules have been all but inescapable, and have no doubt influenced my perceptions. But it says something about the power of the medium that the boy in me who still gets a thrill out of Christmas mornings also still secretly wants to believe in the magic of TV.
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