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Upfronts: The week networks moved forward by looking back

May 20, 2010 | 11:39 am
The list of 23 new series picked up by the five broadcast networks for fall does not contain any shows about time travel. But that doesn’t matter: TV executives still seem determined to step back to a time long ago, when the world was safer for old media … all the way back … to the 1980s.

In making a bold play to kick off Thursday nights with comedies, CBS executives name-checked "Cheers" and other sitcoms that ruled '80s TV. Fox has "Lonestar," an oil-industry soap that recalls "Dallas," a national obsession in the early '80s. CBS is remaking "Hawaii Five-O," which originally left the airwaves in 1980, and ABC’s forensics drama "Body of Proof" looks like nothing so much as "Quincy, M.E." (1976-83) with Jack Klugman replaced by the much-less-craggy Dana Delany.

You can’t blame TV execs, who unfurled their fall schedules for advertisers this week in New York, for feeling nostalgic. This future stuff is hard. Last year, NBC tried to leap into tomorrow by axing its 10 p.m. dramas and bringing Jay Leno to prime time; the network fell flat on its face. ABC did the near-impossible – created a genuine hit with a new comedy, "Modern Family" – and still wound up in the ratings cellar. CBS and Fox are battling for the lead with nerves on edge: The former is contemplating the slow but inevitable erosion of its signature "CSI" franchise, and the latter is facing a similar prospect for "American Idol," TV’s ratings monster for most of the last decade.

So programmers are making a bold gamble … on what worked in the past. The 1980s make a reassuring reference point, not just because most of today’s 40-ish programmers came of age during that era. It was also the high-water mark of the four networks (Fox started in 1986), the time of greatest audience reach before the relentless incursion of cable and the Internet.

At the network’s "upfront" presentations this week, gone were the gauzy, futuristic proclamations about expanding to new platforms, digital strategies and other PowerPoint gobbledygook (well, except at ABC, where Disney-ABC TV boss Anne Sweeney stumbled over the words "pad" and "pod" during her talk). Ditto new reality shows, which vanished from fall schedules for the first time since the craze for that genre started nearly 10 years ago.

What’s making a comeback instead are old-fashioned scheduling ploys -- Fox ad-sales chief Jon Nesvig told advertisers that 80% of TV shows were still watched live, knocking down the view that the future lay with DVRs and other "time-shifted viewing" -- and scripted series, the meat-and-potatoes of network lineups for most of the last 60 years.

CBS has gotten the most attention for its Thursday gambit, which involves opening the night with its emerging sitcom hit "The Big Bang Theory," displacing "Survivor," which will move to Wednesdays. It’s a brave move that could bring more viewers to CBS on a key night when movie studios throw around a lot of ad money.

But "Big Bang" is followed by "$#*! My Dad Says," a new comedy starring William Shatner, which, in a likely sign of trouble ahead, already is being retooled. Clips of "My Dad" brought to mind not "Cheers" but "Bram & Alice," another aging parent-grown-child sitcom that ran for four episodes on CBS a few seasons back.

CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl described the network’s maneuverings with the oxymoronic phrase "aggressive stability." The aggressive part is open to debate, but stability seems to be a yearning for all the networks. Shatner’s was not the only familiar face glimpsed at network presentations and parties; the new lineups are crowded with now-middle-aged stars who first shot to fame during the Reagan years: Delany, Jimmy Smits (of NBC’s "Outlaw"), Blair Underwood (in NBC’s "The Event"), Tom Selleck (CBS’ "Blue Bloods") and even former "Flashdance" star Jennifer Beals (late of "The L Word" and "Lie to Me" and now headed to Fox’s "Ride-Along" for midseason).

The real question is whether the new lineups have any potential breakthrough series amid all the throwbacks. Networks are still relying heavily on courtroom and crime dramas, a default choice at a time when networks are paying a lot of lip service to imaginative ideals. At 10 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, in fact, crime shows will be the only broadcast choices, including Jerry Bruckheimer’s new U.S. marshals epic, "Chase," on NBC; CBS’ "Defenders," with Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell as Vegas lawyers; and NBC’s new "Law & Order" spin-off in Los Angeles.

But what tends to drive viewers to networks are fresh takes on familiar concepts; in retrospect, they seem obvious, but at the time, no one saw them coming. CBS originally scheduled "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" in an undesirable Friday slot. "American Idol" was initially a summer show. They were not like other things on TV at the time.

From that perspective, shows such as "Mike & Molly" and "Undercovers" might have the best shot. A CBS sitcom that seems to pick up where "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" left off, "Mike & Molly" is a romantic comedy about two overweight law-enforcement officers. It’s a conventional sitcom in many respects, but its two main characters could not be more implausible for the typically looks-obsessed fantasy land of network TV.
"Undercovers," meanwhile, is a one-hour action drama about a married couple (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who happen to be spies. New twists? Sure. New concept? No way. "Undercovers" plays like an updated, techno-friendly twist on "Hart to Hart."

You know "Hart to Hart," right? It’s that Aaron Spelling detective show from the 1980s.

-- Scott Collins

Photo: Becki Newton, top left, stars in "Love Bites." Credit: Chris Haston / NBC

Photo: Alex O'Loughlin, top center, stars in "Hawaii Five-O" Credit: Mario Perez / CBS

Photo: Maggie Q, top right, stars in "Nikita." Credit: Jordin Althaus / The CW

Photo: Keri Russell, bottom left, and Will Arnett in "Running Wilde."
Credit: Ed Araquel / FOX

Photo, bottom right: Julie Benz, left, Kay Panabaker, Jimmy Bennett and Michael Chiklis in "No Ordinary Family." Credit: Eric McCandless / ABC


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