OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Television is the engine that's meant to propel the American

advertising, marketing and media economies forward. So why are the

prime-time schedules for the coming fall season from the big broadcast

networks so backward?



The networks unveiled their line-ups for the 2001-2002 season last week

in New York at a series of glitzy, star-stuffed presentations to

agencies and advertisers. In recent years, they've prided themselves on

pushing the envelope, to seek out the fickle and jaded young audiences

coveted by Madison Avenue. The strategy was to take risks by presenting

distinctive alternatives to the formulaic fare that has turned off those

viewers.



But many of the networks' latest efforts to compete against cable and

syndicated shows, not to mention the appeal of the internet, have proved

about as attractive as a tube of Colgate at a Procter & Gamble board

meeting.



Sitcoms featuring well-known faces such as Bette Midler, Gabriel Byrne,

Geena Davis and Michael Richards have all been cancelled, as have many

new animated sitcoms, offbeat dramas and quiz shows that weren't Who

Wants to be a Millionaire or The Weakest Link.



So the prime-time schedules for the fall have turned out to be

strikingly cautious, as conservative as the new administration in the

White House.



(Coincidence or a shift in the zeitgeist?) There is more of the same,

the tried and true, as well as the copycat programming that led Fred

Allen to opine decades ago that "imitation is the sincerest form of

television".



Are reality shows popular? Well, here come a third installment of

Survivor (CBS) and second series of The Mole (ABC), Popstars (WB) and

Temptation Island (Fox). Newcomers are The Amazing Race (CBS), Elimidate

Deluxe (WB) and Lost in the USA (also WB).



Has a series been a hit? Well, why not rerun episodes at the same time

as new episodes are airing on other nights? That's the premise behind

the Fox Family Comedy Wheel, retread episodes of programmes such as

Malcolm in the Middle, The Simpsons and That 70s Show.



The networks can still try to build series around stars, as evidenced by

a return for Ellen DeGeneres, on CBS instead of ABC; Jason Alexander, on

ABC instead of NBC. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell, from WB, are

being picked up intact by UPN.



And when the networks could have gambled with schedule changes, they

passed for the most part, staying with the current season's

line-ups.



For instance, CBS was thought to be considering challenging NBC by

moving CSI, a sudden-hit drama, against ER. Instead, CBS is leaving CSI

where it is and slotting in a new drama, The Agency, against ER.



What accounts for opting for safe sets? Probably the economic slowdown,

which produces an atmosphere in which creative impulses are damped down

if not stamped out for fear of losing what they already have.



The unveiling of the fall schedules kicks off the annual upfront market,

during which the networks sell in advance as much of 70 to 80 per cent

of total prime-time commercial time. With widespread forecasts that

their take could decline by as much as ten per cent in dollars from last

year's upfront, this seems to be no time for risky business.



Wait. UPN for one is daring to be different. The fifth series to be

based on Star Trek is being titled Enterprise, not Star Trek: Enterprise

after the style of its predecessors.



Now that's boldly going where no-one has gone before.



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