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Networks seem to have skipped fall season

| Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008

For the networks, it has been a no-fun fall.

Once again, the five broadcast networks made it into November without one breakout, game-changing hit -- or any show, old or new, that has caused any palpable audience excitement. CBS and Fox can claim modest successes with "The Mentalist" and" Fringe"; otherwise, the only shows people seem eager to see are those held till January: "Lost," "24" and "Idol."

Part of the problem was this year's no-fall-at-all approach -- a meager 14 new scripted series mixed in with a handful of holdovers. Pray that was an aberration caused by the writers' strike and not the dawning of some brilliant new business plan.

You can also blame some of the ratings decline on an absorbing election campaign. Still, it's not the candidates' fault when new shows don't click and older shows falter, from the creative collapse of "Heroes" to the Erica/Callie misstep in "Grey's Anatomy."

The only bright side to fall's failure is that it may teach the networks a few lessons. Three to consider:

• Create more, import less: It's not one world yet, and it's not enough to simply co-opt international ideas. If the American "Life on Mars" is a pale, fuzzy copy of the British original, it's in part because Manchester is not New York, and you can't impose attitudes from one city and culture on the other.

While sloppy execution might account for the lack of enthusiasm for this rash of imports, including "Worst Week," "Eleventh Hour," "Kath & Kim," "Crusoe" and "The Ex List," it's not the only problem. This willingness to base U.S. schedules on foreign ratings reflects both a laziness and a lack of confidence among network executives. TV works better when it's run by people who have faith in their own taste and judgment -- even if that faith is misplaced.

• Get serious about comedy: The networks are willing to do anything to get a hit comedy -- except, apparently, put real money or energy into developing one. Instead we get the inexpertly imported "Week" and "Kath," throwback family comedy "Gary Unmarried" and blatantly awful "Do Not Disturb." We can't expect every show to be terrific, but we can ask networks to air fewer shows they know are terrible.

• Develop on your time, not ours. Making a pilot before ordering a show doesn't guarantee perfection, but it does at least ensure the worst version will be seen by insiders only. Doing without, as NBC did this year, means we have to watch as shows stumble toward coherence, a distant goal where "My Own Worst Enemy," which was cancelled last week, is concerned. As for "Knight Rider," which is reportedly being retooled to make it more closely model the '80s original, here's an idea: The original is dead and off the air. Model that.

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