Fall TV pilots show few signs of promise

On the eve of a television press tour, the offerings disappoint.

By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published July 16, 2007

As you read this, I will be walking the halls of the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles, searching out scoops on the fall TV season as part of the Television Critics Association's Summer Press Tour.

It's a daunting enterprise: 17 days of press conferences, dinner parties and set visits organized to give the nation's TV writers an insider's view of the next six months of network, cable and public television. These days, I only go for the two weeks featuring network TV; the last time I tried covering the full tour I got so sick even a marathon of Jerry Springer reruns couldn't get me out of bed.

To prepare, I have watched DVDs of the pilot episodes for nearly every fall network show.

To my astonishment, not one of them was any good.

Not one single show.

What a change from last year. Fueled by oddball successes like Lost and Desperate Housewives, network TV types threw all kinds of resources and creativity at their fall season in 2006, enlisting names such as Spike Lee, Virginia Madsen, Aaron Sorkin, Timothy Hutton and Ray Liotta for a host of groundbreaking concepts.

Then the bottom fell out. Liotta's crime drama Smith, Hutton's Kidnapped and Sorkin's Studio 60 collapsed in the ratings, along with serious setbacks for complex past hits such as Lost, 24 and Desperate Housewives. Even shows that had some early success, such as NBC's superhero adventure Heroes and CBS's apocalyptic drama Jericho, lost steam toward the season's end, forcing fans to send truckloads of nuts to the Eye network just to keep Jericho on the air.

So it's no wonder that this year's new crop feels a little, well, modest.

ABC has, among other new series, a show featuring cavemen snagged from a car insurance commercial and three different attempts to clone Sex and the City - one for guys, one for girls and one for mystery lovers.

NBC has a Bionic Woman remake with no slow motion, no metallic sounds and no Lee Majors (as if!); CBS has a sprawling drama dubbed Cane centered on a Cuban-American family that owns a sugar cane business in Palm Beach; and Fox has a new comedy, Back to You, featuring the return of Frasier's Kelsey Grammer and Everybody Loves Raymond's Patricia Heaton to series TV.

Yet, while some of these shows are pleasant enough, there's nothing with the taut drama of Lost or the giddy comedy of Ugly Betty. These are scaled-down series for uncertain times.

And no wonder. With audience numbers steadily decreasing while online video and DVR recordings take a bigger bite of viewership, network TV programmers seem more uncertain than ever about what audiences want to see, and how they want to see it.

The hit sitcoms that once made hundreds of millions for TV networks have withered as young viewers lost interest in the form. And with few people willing to watch reruns of any series, the entire economic foundation of the network TV industry, which once counted on revenue from rebroadcasts to cover the costs of episodes, now seems threatened.

At least the network can take solace in another bitter lesson learned from last year: An amazing pilot episode often does not equal an amazing TV series. This year, the chance of being disappointed by a mediocre series emerging from a blockbuster pilot seems remote indeed.

So, with the TV industry at another crossroads, the stage is set for serious questions at this year's press tour. Among them:

- Will online distribution of prized series such as Heroes and Grey's Anatomy bring new audiences to shows, or just decimate ratings for all the networks?

- Why did the Fox network hire as its new entertainment president a guy who got fired from NBC for developing shows that kept it mired in fourth place?

- Will CBS brass ever admit that paying Katie Couric $15-million annually to anchor a third-place newscast was a tremendous mistake?

- Can the 30-something party boy now leading NBC entertainment - the same guy who brokered the deluge of European-inspired "reality TV" shows to the networks as an agent years ago - really turn around the fourth-place network?

- Why are four major scripted TV series set in Florida (Nip/Tuck, CSI: Miami, Dexter and Cane) but not filmed full time in the state?

It's easy for some to get the idea this is a three-week orgy of parties with big-name celebrities and high-powered, often dishonest TV executives. (I will admit that past press tour encounters with Wesley Snipes, Andy Garcia, Jon Stewart and Jenny McCarthy are among my fondest memories.)

But, as another TV critic pal of mine noted years ago, the press tour is also the Super Bowl of the TV industry: Everyone who is anyone will be here. And they'll be talking, even to a cynical guy from a newspaper in Central Florida who didn't like much of what's coming this fall.

Some call it a "death march with cocktails." But I see the press tour more as an opportunity to squirm under the glib facade of the TV industry and get a close look at an institution once again struggling to redefine itself before it goes seriously out of style.

To be honest, I can't think of a better way to spend a few weeks in the Hollywood sunshine.

See live reports, podcasts and more from Eric Deggans' Los Angeles trip on the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.