The small screen never looked so big

Published September 10, 2006

In today's increasingly wired world, the threats to network television just keep growing:

Cable and satellite TV. Digital downloads. Streaming video. Ubiquitous iPods. Playstation portables. Shrinking amounts of leisure time. Growing audience sophistication.

Fortunately for TV fans, network honchos have devised a novel strategy for success in the 2006-07 season.


You read it right. After years of loading up on reality TV, misplaced celebrity vehicles, mindless situation comedies and worse, broadcasters are trying the one option they have left: producing shows people might watch, simply because they're good.

"The sophistication of our audience has been growing and growing...they've grown up on cable television and music videos and they expect something more," said Tommy Schlamme, the director who crafted the cinematic look of NBC's The West Wing and is now working on the network's next great hope, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

"Especially when Lost and Desperate Housewives surfaced, you had two well-done, high-quality, well-acted shows that became highly successful," added Schlamme, noting that those two hits pulled ABC out of the ratings basement. "It's amazing how quickly things can change when people can make money. And the networks said: 'This is what we need to do now. It's straight economics.' "

Look at this fall's crop of 27 new shows, and the evidence abounds.

You want big-name stars? There's Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen in CBS's Smith, James Woods in CBS's Shark, Alec Baldwin in NBC's 30 Rock, Timothy Hutton, Mykelti Williamson and Delroy Lindo in NBC's Kidnapped, Sally Field and Tom Skerritt in ABC's Brothers & Sisters and Anne Heche in ABC's Men in Trees.

And there are more VIPs behind the scenes. Oscar-nominated actor Salma Hayek Frida is executive producer on ABC's Ugly Betty. Film firebrand Spike Lee directed the pilot for Shark and is developing two drama series for NBC.

Longtime Ron Howard collaborator Brian Grazer is following in the footsteps of CSI producer Jerry Bruckheimer; Grazer is executive producer for Shark, NBC's TV version of the football film Friday Night Lights and NBC's Treasure Hunters. He seems unfazed by the Fox network's decision to cancel the last TV series he executive produced, the critically acclaimed comedy Arrested Development.

"The fact that television is taking more chances is exciting to me," said Grazer (The Da Vinci Code, Inside Man), speaking to TV critics at a Los Angeles press conference this summer. "I have a couple of shows that are on the air that (are) benefiting from the risk-taking that television is doing right now. . . . In the world of movies . . . marketing costs are so expensive . . . a lot of art movies or (experimental) movies just don't get made."

None of this would mean much if actual TV content weren't changing as well. But that may be where network television is taking the most chances, from the way Hayek's Ugly Betty centers on a homely heroine seeking success at a fashion magazine to Smith, which opens with a harried heist getaway, jumps back 60 minutes, then jumps back three weeks, then returns to the present.

Perhaps inspired by the flashbacks and time tricks that distinguish Lost and 24, more programs are trying new storytelling techniques. ABC's The Nine follows people who wind up inside a bank, jumping to the end of their 52-hour hostage ordeal; the rest of the season will explore what happened to them during the crisis.

Another ABC series, Six Degrees, follows six New Yorkers whose lives are inexplicably intertwined. NBC's Kidnapped and Fox's Vanished both stretch the resolution of a mysterious abduction over an entire season, 24-style.

ABC's Big Day gives a single wedding day the 24 treatment, turning each episode into a near-real-time countdown to the nuptials. And even the gussied-up nighttime soap operas on the new MyNetworkTV system - created by Fox to serve former UPN and WB affiliates left out of their merger into the CW network - import visual tricks from films and music videos to add sparkle.

"It's a testament to America . . . I think we're all too smart for the traditional TV comedy," said Marla Sokoloff, an alum of ABC's legal drama The Practice who now plays Big Day's often-neurotic bride (ABC has not yet scheduled its premiere). "The laugh track is so blatantly obvious, it's laughable. People want to watch something that's a little more subtle. And our writers came from (the CBS sitcom) King of Queens; they were so sick of writing the same scenes around the same couch, they were dying for something different."

Old-school TV comedies, think Friends or Seinfeld, recorded episodes live-to-tape before an audience with multiple cameras - much like a play, with the same locations week after week.

No more: Sitcoms such as Big Day, Ted Danson's Help Me Help You and The Knights of Prosperity (an inspired comedy that once had a much cooler name, Let's Rob Mick Jagger) are filmed with one camera, like a movie, with no canned laughter to tell you where the punch lines are.

Blame critically acclaimed comedies like Scrubs, The Office and My Name Is Earl, which blew up traditional sitcom formulas with faster pacing, more daring concepts and - most important - no recorded laughter.

"I hear a laugh track now . . . and if you are not genuinely, over-the-top funny, that laugh track just beats the c--- out of you," said Danson, whose resume of traditional sitcom work includes Becker, Ink and the classic hit Cheers. "Everyone's going 'I don't know if that joke was that funny.' "

Then there are the stars who shrug off talk of importing quality from movies to television.

Former Friends star Matthew Perry said his decision to join NBC's Studio 60 was simple.

"When you are given the kind of impossible task of following up what I did for the last 10 years, you kind of want to change it up a little bit," he told TV critics this summer. "I'm here mostly because of how good the script is and how bad (the movie) The Whole Ten Yards was."

And though Perry was cracking wise, he is backed by other stars who work in film and television: As TV shows are getting more ambitious, more layered, nicer-looking and more realistic, many films seem more predictable, more conservative and more corporate.

"I looked at the Oscar movies this year, and I thought they were very parochial . . . all with the same tenor and tone," said James Woods, an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actor (Salvador, Ghosts of Mississippi) who took the lead in the CBS legal drama Shark despite a long-held personal policy against starring in a TV series.

"Movies seem to be scared, whereas television seems to be like a teenager feeling his or her oats," added Woods, who got into TV with two film greats, executive producer Grazer and director Lee, at his side. "Television is more sophisticated, more dynamic, more gut-wrenching to me today than the movies. . . . This is where the action is."

As more TV shows are released on DVD, streaming video and digital downloads, better quality rewards repeated viewing. And more interesting images encourage fans to sample the show in different mediums.

But critics wonder about the downside of so many "serialized" dramas, with convoluted story lines demanding fans stay tuned every week.

What happens when shows are canceled without resolving their plot lines? Will that make viewers less likely to commit to the next serialized show?

Schlamme warned of the biggest pitfall: rising price tags for every new program.

"There's not necessarily more money coming in, but there's more demand to make it look better," he said. "Every one of these new shows are extraordinarily well done, and that costs money. All of us are sort of waiting to see how - if every TV show costs money and everything is streamed or sold online - how they are going to make money. Sooner or later, something will come to the breaking point."

Sokoloff worries that audiences just won't show up.

"Take a show like Arrested Development that was, at times, maybe a little too smart for its own good, and the people didn't watch it enough," she said. "It's a little scary, that fact that there are so many good shows out there. I hope and pray people will actually respond to it."

Regardless of the outcome, Schlamme has already reached one conclusion about the 2006-07 TV season.

"One thing they can't say is 'This is the same trash they always give us,' " he said, laughing. "You know that HBO slogan, 'It's not TV. It's HBO'? Well, the truth of this season is that it's very much television, it's just very good television."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.

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