TV's Most Intense Storylines This Fall Won't Be on the Screen

Tuning In: The Richest Behind-the-Scenes Dramas of the New TV Season

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For our money, the best drama on TV isn't to be found in the storylines of CBS's "The Good Wife" or ABC's "Nashville."

Instead, TV's most compelling spectacle is located -- as it is most seasons -- behind the scenes. And it all started last night, with NBC debuting "The Voice" in the fall for the first time, along with screenings of the pilots for new sitcoms "The New Normal" and "Go On."

Christina Aguilera listens to a contestant on the third season of 'The Voice'
Christina Aguilera listens to a contestant on the third season of 'The Voice' Credit: NBC

With all of the major broadcast networks testing new ideas, pushing to snare audience at the expense of rivals and fighting against the natural audience erosion that comes with new forms of entertainment and digital viewing opportunities, there's billions of dollars in ad money and millions of consumer eyeballs at stake. Below, our take on the most action-packed plots worth watching in the season ahead.

Is the music over for song-and-dance shows? And how much share of voice might "The Voice" snatch from "American Idol"?

There was a time when there was nothing else like "American Idol" on TV.

Since this TV institution debuted on Fox in 2002, however, rival networks have tried to emulate its success. Viewers have seen other franchises rise (ABC's "Dancing with the Stars and NBC's "America's Got Talent"), shaky ideas piffle (CBS's "Live to Dance") and the screen grow cluttered with Fox's attempts to have an "Idol-like program ("X Factor" or "So You Think You Can Dance") run year-round.

Most of the shows are genuine crowd-pleasers, but the addition of "The Voice" on NBC is showing the genre's limits. In short, there may not be enough eyeballs to support "American Idol"-like ratings for each and every one of these shows. When "The Voice" began its third season last night, it brought with it NBC's hopes for a turnaround and, perhaps, struck a vicious blow against Fox's fledgling "X Factor" -- entering just its second season and now on in the same part of the year as "The Voice."

Whether this fracas will bring more viewers to the genre overall, or leave one of the programs grasping for audience remains to be seen. But "American Idol's" overall ratings for the coming season will be very telling.

ABC's quiet aggression: Last year at this time, ABC was seen as being in decline, with a passel of aging hits ("Desperate Housewives," "Grey 's Anatomy") and not much new on the horizon. Even NBC started making jokes about the Disney network's performance, insisting "Sunday Night Football" was helping the Peacock eke out a victory over the Mouse in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic.

We don't think NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke is snickering at ABC this fall.

In recent months, ABC has teed up a number of cinematic new dramas, including "Nashville" and "The Last Resort," that are among the most anticipated of the new TV season. The network's "Good Morning America" has overtaken NBC's long-dominant morning show "Today." And now ABC is set to install Jimmy Kimmel a half-hour earlier at 11:35 p.m., potentially offering late-night audiences a new taste as NBC's Jay Leno and CBS's David Letterman move further into their long tenures in the timeslot.

To be certain, there are a lot of "ifs" for ABC to solidify: If Mr. Kimmel can win new audiences, he will have an established presence when NBC and CBS inevitably try to launch successors to good ol' Dave and Jay . If GMA can maintain its momentum while anchor Robin Roberts is on medical leave, it will give ABC an edge in the daytime ad-dollar and ratings races. And if any of ABC's new prime-time programs prove successful, it could lend the network a much-needed boost as CBS and Fox battle it out to be top dog.

Elisha Cuthbert from 'Happy Endings' on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live'
Elisha Cuthbert from 'Happy Endings' on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' Credit: ABC

TV's comedy transfer: As NBC starts getting out of the hip, urbane comedy business, Fox is looking to pick it up.

A crowd of cultists continue to wring their hands at the coming conclusions for NBC's much-vaunted "The Office" and "30 Rock." Under new parent Comcast, the Peacock has been quietly looking to launch broader comedies that appeal to a wider swath of audience -- picture the monkey set to star in this season's "Animal Practice" or the lovable doofuses who populate new sitcom "Guys With Kids.

With that mission underway, NBC has less room -- and decidedly less love -- for the arch comedy of Tina Fey and "The Office." These shows appeal to a sweet spot that the new NBC may not like as much as it did under its previous owners. For decades, NBC churned out a series of smart sitcoms about the travails of city folk, their massive apartments and highfalutin' jobs: From "Seinfeld," "Mad About You" and "Caroline in the City" to "Coupling," "Outsourced" and "Community," NBC always aimed for the urban viewer with high income and a good education.

The theory was that these viewers were more coveted by advertisers than couch potatoes in the flyover states, and therefore worth a premium. And indeed, some numbered among NBC's biggest ad-revenue generators even if they didn't become ratings juggernauts on the order of "Modern Family" or "Two and a Half Men." They would often fight harder for an advertiser's dollar, as anyone who saw Tina Fey and crew poke fun at Verizon, Kraft, Snapple or SoyJoy on "30 Rock" can tell you. But with programs like "Community" generating rabid cult audiences but abysmal ratings , NBC has started to move away from such fare. "30 Rock" will go out by the end of the year and "Community" has been all but banished to Fridays without its original showrunner.

Now Fox sees an opening.

After introducing the witty, urbane "New Girl" last season -- and faring reasonably well among viewers between 18 and 49 -- Fox is launching "Ben & Kate" and "The Mindy Project" to accompany that program on Tuesday nights. "Mindy" itself features a writer/actress who came to notice on "The Office."

If anything, Fox and NBC's different approaches to comedy highlight their differences. Once known for its kookier offerings such as "Herman's Head" and "Stacked," Fox has grown up and is trying to capture a viewer open to nontraditional but high-quality fare -- and perhaps even trump CBS for the title of most-watched network. Fox already captures the most viewers between 18 and 49. NBC, on the other hand, is trying to turn around longtime ratings woes with two of the biggest broad-appeal offerings on TV: "Sunday Night Football" and "The Voice."

These days, a show like "30 Rock" might fare better on Fox. Maybe Liz Lemon needs to leave Jack Donaghy behind and instead seek out Fox's Kevin Reilly as a mentor.

Did you say you want a "Revolution"? How about other shows like it?

NBC's new sci-fi drama "Revolution" is one of the most anticipated programs of the fall, at least according to social-media circles. But recent TV history weighs against the success of this post-apocalyptic drama, which potrays a rebellious family hoping to reunite with one of its members after a militia takes control in a world where modern technology is useless.

Normally, the presence of J.J. Abrams's production imprimatur -- he and his cronies are the wunderkinds behind "Alias," "Felicity," "Lost" and the rebooted "Star Trek" movie franchise -- would be enough to warrant the buzz. Keep in mind, however, that the last several TV seasons have been littered with the dead husks of similar programs: Anyone remember the anticipation placed behind ABC's "Flash Forward" or NBC's "The Event" or even Fox's "Terra Nova" from last year? Simply put, these programs -- filled with special effects and complex plot turns -- are often too expensive to support the cult followings they typically generate.

Making things more uncertain is Mr. Abrams, whose recent TV efforts are starting to fizzle. "Fringe," the sci-fi program Friday nights on Fox, is in its last season. "Undercovers," a drama about a crime-fighting husband and wife that sparked high hopes at NBC, was cancelled quickly after it debuted.

To be sure, there's a nation of devoted sci-fi acolytes out there who become die-hard fans very quickly and are swift to take to Twitter and Facebook to trumpet the virtue of these programs. There's a reason The CW is launching "Arrow," based on comic-book character Green Arrow, this fall. But it's not clear this legion of advertiser-desired nerds is enough to sustain productions over a certain cost -- even if, like "Revolution," they will enjoy "The Voice" as a lead-in.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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