TV networks with little to lose often make it-can't-get-any-worse gambles that lead to great shows. Think of ABC's introduction of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" in 2004, which helped the network break out of fourth place.
This fall, however, the biggest risks are coming from the networks on top. Fox, which leads in the crucial 18-49 demo, is premiering costly, big-event shows with creators who've gone out of their way to set high expectations. CBS, the most watched network overall, is trying to save TV's biggest comedy by recasting it in its ninth season.
ABC and NBC, the third and fourth-place networks, respectively, are playing it safe by waiting until midseason to debut daring shows like ABC's "The River" and NBC's "Awake." ABC entertainment president Paul Lee, who took over his network last summer, and his NBC counterpart, Bob Greenblatt, who started this year, seem to be taking a cautious approach to the early part of the season.
The networks have spent the last week trying to win over critics at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, and critics have always rewarded shows that break rules. This fall they're finding little on the networks to latch onto and champion. White-bearded TV columnists and blocky-spectacled bloggers alike tend to shrug their shoulders when asked what looks great this year.
"There are some plays that you make that are designed to be familiar," Lee told TheWrap. "You try and do a balance between shows that are really solid and strong and shows that are really swinging for the fences."
One of Fox's biggest swings is "Terra Nova," which combines family drama, sci-fi, action, and dinosaurs. But it remains to be seen whether that makes it an edgy genre-breaker or a Frankenstein assembled from too many parts.
"X Factor," meanwhile, is already a proven U.K. hit, but it recycles much from "American Idol," television's top show -- including two of its original judges. It's a safe formula, and the risk is that it will be seen as a failure if it does anything but thrive.
If Fox's shows don't meet their expectations, they can blame their creators for helping set them too high. "X Factor" creator Simon Cowell told reporters Friday that he wanted his new show to surpass "American Idol" as the most-watched show on television. And one of the myriad "Terra Nova" producers said in January that he wanted his show to appeal to a wider audience than "Lost."
That was before the show's most-public setback -- the decision to cancel a planned debut of its pilot in May, to spend more time on visual effects. A new version of the pilot screened for critics this week, and many agreed that the CGI could still use some work. Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly acknowledged "Terra Nova" is an expensive gamble -- but said it would at least stand out.
"What it is is a bet where you don't say, 'well wait, which one is 'Terra Nova' again?' This is separated from the pack," Reilly said.
Critical success is rarely crucial to popularity, but many critics seemed to have a soft spot for "The New Girl," a very safe Fox comedy.
In the Beverly Hilton ballroom, site of the TCA gathering, the panel for the show was the only one that felt anything like a lovefest. The show stars Zooey Deschanel as one of those TV-ubiquitious cute-as-a-bunny geek girls living with or near a bunch of hapless
As Deschanel sat during a cast Q&A, peering out from under her bangs with her flats pointed primly at the floor, one writer gushingly informed her that the consensus of the reporters tweeting during the panel was that she was "adorable." (A small, silent contingent, your humble correspondent included, winced a little at the preciousness of it all.)
Other panels elicited more skepticism. Reporters and ultra-thin starlets in scarily high heels debated endlessly whether shows about Playboy bunnies (NBC's "The Playboy Club") and girdled stewardesses (ABC's "Pan Am") could be empowering to women. (Did anyone expect Amber Heard or Christina Ricci to agree to say, "You're right, we're trying to set women back to the '60s"?)
The rare moment of open hostility over a show -- OK, jokey hostility -- came Sunday when ABC's Lee was repeatedly asked to defend "Work It," a "Bosom Buddies" redux about two men who dress up as women to get jobs in pharmaceutical sales. Lee said the likelihood that critics wouldn’t like it was part of its appeal to him.
Reporters also raised minor protests over the absence of Ashton Kutcher. The traditionally safe CBS -- which has been rewarded for its caution with the largest audience -- is tellingly taking its biggest risk in the name of protecting "Two and a Half Men"'s status-quo success. While trying to press on without Charlie Sheen is a major gamble, CBS hedged it by denying reporters the chance to grill the show's new star.
CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler said Kutcher and his castmates were unavailable because the show was in production, though other stars who appeared also had shows in production.
The much-scrutinized "Men" is in a more tenuous position than those shows, however: At the time of the CBS presentation, the reconfigured cast had just finished its first table read and was preparing for its first post-Sheen shoot.
"CSI" seemed like a less stressful place. An easygoing Ted Danson, who is replacing Laurence Fishburne, said his character would be a Phil Jackson-like figure who tries to restore Zen-like balance to the CSI team. He seemed to bring the same mellow vibes to his show, which has, of course, been through this sort of thing before. (Fishburne replaced William Petersen.)
The network's biggest hopes for breakout success look to be "Two Broke Girls," and "Person of Interest," both of which have research on their side. "Girls" is one of many comedies about disparate roommates thrown together -- but this time they're also waitresses. CBS says the show is its best-testing ever.
The best-testing drama, the network says, just happens to be "Person of Interest," one of the latest attempts by networks to recapture the "Lost" magic: It comes from the show's executive producer, J.J. Abrams, and stars its Emmy-winning Michael Emerson. Its team also includes co-creator Jonathan Nolan, who wrote "Dark Night," and Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus. Something will have to go very wrong for it not to work.
NBC has generated the most buzz for "The Playboy Club," a show that sounds riskier than it is: The 1960s setting could challenge audiences, but it also gives the show some coverage from charges of indecency, exploitation, etc. Women really did wear these costumes, 50 years ago, and the world didn't end. (So far only one affiliate, owned by the Mormon church, has balked at airing the show.)
NBC's fourth-place position might seem like a natural place from which to mount a big, dangerous offensive. But Greenblatt seems inclined to take an understated approach -- and
even had the grace to introduce each of his shows personally.
He may be quietly confident because of a potential ace in the hole: NBC has Sunday Night Football, the biggest show of last fall, and this year's Super Bowl.
NBC's riskiest show is the frankly weird "Grimm," about detectives solving crimes in a world populated by fairy-tale heroes and monsters. NBC has scheduled it on Friday nights, which has recently become the place for shows with complicated mythologies and devoted cult
followings. (Think Fox's "Fringe" and CW's "Supernatural.")
ABC has more daringly set its own fairy-tale inspired show, "Once Upon a Time," on Sunday nights. Like "Grimm," the show combines crime drama and fantasy.
With a strong female protagonist -- a bounty hunter played by "House" alum Jennifer Morrison -- "Once" fits in perfectly in ABC's stable of series about "empowered women," a phrase used repeatedly by Lee.
Besides "Once," ABC is pushing "Pan Am," "Charlie's Angels," and "Revenge," all of which aspire to present strong women. Accordingly, ABC's comedies are full of threatened men, including those cross-dressing salesmen in "Work It."
Returning "Home Improvement" star Tim Allen leads "Last Man Standing," which would have to work very, very hard to fail, given Allen's past success and the involvement of "30 Rock" writer Jack Burdett. It shares Tuesday nights with "Man Up," about three men trying to be
The CW, meanwhile, is taking small steps away from its well-established strategy of targeting young women -- by branching out to slightly older young women. Rachel Bilson, who played a high schooler in "The O.C.," is back as a young doctor in "The Heart of Dixie." "Ringer," meanwhile, was originally planned as a CBS show. It features "Buffy" icon Sarah Michelle Gellar as a troubled woman impersonating her perhaps-more-troubled twin sister.
TheWrap tried to persuade one producer to take what would be the biggest risk on television, but he wouldn't bite. "Charlie's Angels" still needs someone to provide the voice of Charlie, and we earnestly suggested a certain former star of "Two and a Half Men."
"No chance of Charlie Sheen," said "Angels" executive producer Al Gough. "I think there's an insurance issue."