Drama! Intrigue! Celebrity! What You Should Know About the Fall TV Season

Ad Age Flips Through the Networks' Biggest Issues, Shake-ups and Challenges

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Get ready for a barrage of promotions for new fall TV programs. But what's going on behind the scenes might be just as worth watching. Though it may still seem like summer, the CW is set this week to launch seasons of "90210" and start programs such as "Hellcats." NBC is preparing to open what it hopes will be a new chapter with buzzed-about programs including "The Event" and "Undercovers." CBS is about to roll out some of the most-anticipated programs of the season, including a revamp of "Hawaii Five-0" and a saucily-titled sitcom called "$#*! My Dad Says." Fox has its eye on a "Dallas"-style oil-and-con-man drama called "Lone Star."

'Glee': Fox is counting on more pitch-perfect success from its Emmy-winning dramedy.
'Glee': Fox is counting on more pitch-perfect success from its Emmy-winning dramedy. Credit: Adam Rose/Fox

Underneath all the hoopla, however, stand any number of intriguing challenges the TV networks must face, some together, some on their own. What are they? Below, Ad Age tells you what to watch out for as the 2010-2011 TV season gets out of the starting blocks.

Will Fox's "American Idol" continue as TV's powerhouse show?

Yes -- for now. The show is still successful, but it is aging, and lingering questions over the lineup of judges for next season aren't helping the network make its case. You can still expect "Idol" to bring in the masses, but the show has lost some steam. Fox clearly wants to keep stoking its fires until it can determine how successful departed host Simon Cowell's "X Factor" will be in the fall of 2011 -- and perhaps beyond.

Will CW's experiment with mixing online views and TV ratings gain traction?

It's entirely possible. The network has begun offering advertisers packages of ad inventory across TV airings and online streams of its programs. As more fans choose to watch favorite programs in a nontraditional fashion, it has become clear to many in the industry that relying on good old Nielsen ratings -- regular or commercial -- doesn't always show the full range of who's watching shows such as "Gossip Girl" or "Life Unexpected."

Advertiser interest in the CW's combined package was "tremendously received" during the upfront, said Rob Tuck, exec VP-network sales at the CW, and the network has "continued to have the same success in the fourth-quarter scatter marketplace." Now the bigger question: If advertisers want more of this from the CW, will they seek it from other outlets?

'The Event:' NBC is hoping fans of such shows as 'Lost' will flock to this new drama.
'The Event:' NBC is hoping fans of such shows as 'Lost' will flock to this new drama. Credit: Justin Lubin/NBC

Is social media doing anything for TV?

We're not sure. There have been some intriguing experiments in the past year, including Fox's effort to run an on-screen feed of Twitter commentary during episodes of "Glee" and "Fringe," and NBC's recent incorporation of tweets during its broadcast of the Emmy awards.

Our take is that TV appears to be doing more for Twitter, Facebook and other social-media venues than they are doing for TV programs, all hype about social buzz generating higher ratings for TV shows aside. People love to chat about their favorite shows, but they may not love seeing that same chat across the bottom of the screen while watching those same comedies and dramas. Likewise, what sounds funny on Twitter or in an update may fall flat when being jammed into a live awards-show broadcast.

Do TV viewers still have a yen for complex "enigma" shows that require them to watch every episode with rigorous attention?

NBC will find out sooner than most. The network, still in the midst of trying to right its ratings woes, is launching a one-hour drama called "The Event" that its executives believe will attract those audiences that once flocked to now-canceled serials like ABC's "Lost" and Fox's "24." In an era where most folks seem to prefer good ol' hour-long procedural dramas that wrap their plotlines within 40-odd minutes (the rest of the time is for commercials), NBC's gamble is an intriguing one. If you're curious: One episode for "The Event" features a riveting image of a lone pilot in a small plane about to make a beeline for the president of the United States as he tries to hunker down in his official car.

How will changes affect CBS's "CSI" franchise?

This trio of programs remains a reliable performer for CBS, but the network has moved two of the shows -- "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: New York" -- to new nights. Starting in the fall, "Miami" moves to Sundays from Mondays while "New York" moves to Fridays from Wednesdays. Meanwhile, "CSI," still a top program with enviable ratings , is getting on in years. A risk? CBS executives have said they're using "CSI"'s popularity to shore up other nights.

Do we like to watch TV on Fridays?

For many years, Friday has been the night on which networks positioned underperforming programs or a place to stick shows networks believed were on their last legs. Why? Well, everybody was working for the weekend, so they weren't at home watching TV when it finally came around. These days, many of us feel lucky if we can afford a flat-screen TV and a cable hookup. And we're staying home to watch those things on which we spent so much money.

'Hellcats': This teen-targeted drama helps kick off The CW's new season, beginning this week.
'Hellcats': This teen-targeted drama helps kick off The CW's new season, beginning this week. Credit: Sergei Bachlakov/The CW

With that in mind, many big networks are loading up Friday with higher-quality fare, whether that's a cop drama starring Tom Selleck (CBS's "Blue Bloods), a legal drama featuring Jimmy Smits (NBC's "Outlaw") or a new legal show sporting Dana Delany as a neurosurgeon-turned-medical examiner (ABC's "Body of Proof"). Even the CW is getting in on the game by ending its practice of showing repeats of "America's Next Top Model" on Friday nights. Fox may be bucking the trend: "Human Target " and "Good Guys," slated to turn up on that network on Fridays, are less-buzzy affairs.

How stable is ABC's fall schedule?

By replacing former ABC Entertainment chief Stephen McPherson in July, just weeks after selling its new fall schedule to advertisers, ABC is signaling that everything is up for grabs. Mr. McPherson's replacement, Paul Lee, hails from ABC Family, where he built a stable of buzzy programs aimed at the young-teen niche, i.e. "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" and "Kyle XY." What this could mean for new ABC fare such as comedy "Mr. Sunshine" or cop show "Detroit 1-8-7" is anyone's guess. Mr. Lee will likely be looking for ways to bolster ABC's aging hits, "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," and to broaden the appeal of critical favorite "Modern Family."

What changes will Comcast put into place once it finalizes its purchase of a majority stake of NBC Universal?

This deal, long in coming, is still slated to take place sometime around the end of 2010. Once combined, the new company will add cable channels such as "E!" and "Vs." to its stable, and be able to draw on Comcast's vast reach and emerging couch-potato technology (video-on-demand, possible interactive promotions) and use its TV networks to influence new TV-watching behavior. Will Comcast be happy with the performance of broadcast-network NBC? And will the new owners want to tinker with NBC Universal's management or operations? We'll likely get the answers to those questions sometime in 2011.

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