Friday, April 04, 2008

Sifting Through the Wreckage of the Writers'Strike
The Writers’ Strike didn’t really alter the landscape of network television, unless you figure in the flood of game and “reality” shows left in its wake. Those were trying times, to be sure. But now that the dust has begun to settle, and the wounded sitcoms and dramas are limping into their abbreviated season finales, we can more clearly assess the damage the protracted war between producers and writers left in its wake.

Even before the strike began in November, the 2007-2008 proposed TV season was less than stellar. It was loaded with overly hyped shows that promised much more than they ultimately delivered. (Cane comes to mind.) On the other hand, it offered quirky nuggets like Pushing Daisies. In that regard, the strike was a godsend to viewers. It gave us a chance to take a deep breath, and decide for ourselves what may actually be worth our time.

The three-month strike ended in early March, and the networks are now trumpeting the return of scripted series with child-like abandon. All is well in TV Land once again, or so they’d have us believe. That pesky strike was only a minor diversion—a family spat, if you will. Family spats, however, lead to a realignment of hierarchies. And in the post-strike landscape, the networks are taking few bold steps. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the idea that there will always be some incarnation of the ER, CSI and Law and Order franchises.

That said, it’s unlikely that network television is going to undergo a revolution anytime soon. With all the ancillary markets out there—cable, DVD, online and so on—even the most ill-conceived project will find a niche somewhere. Jericho fans mounted a massive peanut campaign to save the series on CBS, but failed to turn out in numbers to save the series. No matter—they knew the Sci-Fi channel would give it the home they knew it deserved, if only in reruns. The most mind-bogglingly idiotic game show of all time, Deal or No Deal, has already found a rerun niche at NBC’s less than revered financial news cable offshoot, CNBC. Cable has become the dumping ground for series that couldn’t pull in mainstream ratings, where they can languish in perpetuity, bringing in enough viewers to keep the rabid fans happy while never posing a real threat to the networks.

Cult and critical favorite Friday Night Lights is a case in point. It will be back for a third season in October, but for only DirectTV subscribers will see it initially. Theoretically, NBC will air the new episodes in early 2009, but I wouldn’t hedge any bets on that happening. Sure, DirectTV has over 16 million subscribers, and a large reason for that is its sports programming. Friday Night Lights wasn’t really a sports program, though. My guess is it will flounder at DTV, be heavily promoted as a DVD boxed set and quietly die a lonely hero’s death.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. One thing the writers’ strike accomplished, however inadvertently, was that it gave programs an opportunity to live or die on the strength, or lack thereof, of their own merits. It also gave viewers more than ample time to consider where their preferences lay. As a result, some shows highly touted by the networks back in September are falling by the wayside, and other, more traditionally risky programs, are finding a second chance at life.

As a result, ABC’s Pushing Daisies is being renewed for the fall season, rescued from early cancellation, I think, by the writers’ strike. Without the abbreviated schedules and the juggling of timeslots that came about as a result of networks scrambling to hold onto viewers, it’s doubtful this quirky show would have had a chance to find an audience. Fortunately, Cavemen and Cashmere Mafia have been axed, and are unlikely to find their way elsewhere.

At CBS, fans can look forward to seeing their favorite CSI versions return, as well as Numb3rs, NCIS and Cold Case. Moonlight, the vampire detective melodrama is scheduled for at least four more episodes, and, if it’s retooled sufficiently, may have a chance to survive into the fall season. The Unit, however, may have fought its last mission, and Cane appears to be a casualty, as well.

Pseudo-science fiction didn’t work out too well for NBC last season, and the writers’ strike didn’t help any, either. Bionic Woman and Journeyman are both history, reduced to a faint possibility they may show up as filler on the Sci-Fi Channel. As feared, though, Knight Rider is scheduled to be a full-fledged series. Other than that, NBC’s schedule will stay pretty much the same. One thing I’m happy about is that the little viewed, but very intelligent cop drama Life will return in the fall.

The fates of newcomers Terminator: the Sara Connor Chronicles, New Amsterdam and Canterbury’s Tales are unknown at this point, but with American Idol, House and its Sunday night cartoon line-up, FOX really has no need to worry. I do think, however, that 24 may end up being a casualty of the writers’ strike. The series depended on momentum, and it lost it this year. Interest, I believe, has waned. On the other hand, Smallville and Supernatural have been renewed at CW, so anything’s possible.

At its height, the writers’ strike seemed a clarion call to revolution that looked poised to shake the studios to their core. But in the end, it was nothing but two factions nickel and diming each other. Now that the war is over, reconstruction efforts are centered on keeping that system in place. The writers are getting a bigger chunk of revenue from the ancillary markets, miniscule though that chunk is. What’s largely missing from the equation is any attempt to up the quality of programming across the spectrum. Instead, both the writers and studios are content to rehash the trite and true formulas with which they’re comfortable.

Admittedly, television ultimately exists as an advertising medium. Anything memorable that emerges from that is accidental. It’s all about demographics. Programs that sell product stay on the air—those that don’t, die. At least, that’s the way it worked before cable, DVDs and online programming. The viewer now holds unprecedented power in shaping the future of the medium. Both the studios and the writers need to realize that the profits they battled over will be linked to a product that holds up to repeated viewings. Otherwise, they’ll find themselves in the same position as the record industry, commiserating about the good old days, when mediocrity was enough to hold sway over the populace.