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Upfronts Wrap-Up: Scared Networks = Better Shows?

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The upfronts are over, the stars are jetting back to L.A., and the ad executives are dry-cleaning the spilled Campari off their party suits. The fall schedule annoucements found 5 or 6 networks—depending whom you count—in wildly different situations: NBC flailing, ABC feeling good but filling a lot of holes, Fox and CBS standing mostly pat, The CW figuring out what exactly it is. I won’t see the full shows for a few weeks, but in general it looks like desperation breeds ingenuity: most of the pilots I’m most curious to see (30 Rock, Friday Night Lights, Let’s Rob… and Six Degrees, to name a few) are at NBC and ABC—partly, perhaps, because they simply announced the most new shows.

But in a lot of ways, the networks are more alike than different. There are always inexplicable mini-trends in a new season—this year, wedding and football shows, for instance. But these look like the mega-trends that will most affect what you see on (and off) TV in 2006-07.

* Nobody Knows How to Make Money in TV Anymore. OK, to be fair, this is true of the whole media world, including magazines (and excepting porn). But the old advertising model is under assault on multiple fronts: TiVo, the Internet, audience fragmentation, cable and so on. Even the traditional secondary sources of revenue, like syndication sales, are having problems. (No new hit sitcoms means no new sitcoms to rerun.) So the networks will try anything: product placements, sponsored mini-shows during commercials, and, especially…

* TV That’s Not on TV. "Interactivity," "multiplatforming" — choose your buzzword, every network has new-media spinoffs to sell: online-only series on their websites, video-on-demand, "mobisodes" on cell phones, Internet games, community sites like MySpace and so on. If young people don’t want to watch TV anymore, the message is, fine with us: we’ll make TV stop being TV.

* Eat Your Serial! The conventional wisdom a few years ago was that viewers didn’t have the time, patience, or, frankly, brains to follow series that told multi-part stories that played out over months or years: hence, the explosion of CSI clones. That changed with 24, Prison Break, Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy. How much it changed is open for debate–several Lost ripoffs failed this season–but the serial is now TV’s preferred way of swinging for the fences: get a successful one and you get obsessed fans coming back week after week, and good DVD sales too. Every network has at least one serial drama, but the latest twist is the serial comedy, building off the success of The Office: sitcoms like Big Day, Betty the Ugly and Let’s Rob… will tell single stories over the course of a season or more.

If there’s a big theme uniting all these trends, it’s that media is changing fast, executives are scared and thus, they’re contemplating the unthinkable: taking risks. Whether this actually makes for good shows I’ll see in a few weeks. But at least the era of boring network TV is suspended, however briefly. Enjoy that—or not—while it lasts.