Sunday, July 09, 2000

Fall TV season a game of survival

        Forget about people voting someone off an island in a measly million-dollar contest. TV's biggest Survivor game begins this week in Pasadena, Calif., one that all Americans have been playing with the mega-million dollar TV industry for 50 years.

        It's called: The Fall TV Season.

        TV networks will showcase their new prime-time series with the likes of Bette Midler, Michael Richards, Andre Braugher, Geena Davis and John Goodman for the Television Critics Association.

        This starts the cycle in which viewers ultimately determine which shows will survive and which will be canceled.

        It's an imperfect process. But generally you, the viewer, seem to make the right calls. You know a rat when we see one; you don't have to taste it.

        The Mike O'Malley Show, NBC's dreadful sitcom, was banished last fall faster than Ramona, the upchucking chemist on CBS' hit Survivor series. You voted it off the schedule with your TV remotes.

        Mission Hill, WB's insipid slacker cartoon, was sent packing faster than Sonja, the guitar-playing Survivor.

        You're not swayed by millions spent by the networks on marketing and promotion. A year ago, you didn't buy into the networks' hype for Wasteland, Time of Your Life and all their young-skewing angst series.

        Instead you threw your support to experienced TV veterans starring in The West Wing, Once and Again, Judging Amy, Family Law and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

        If a show can't cut it, you don't want it around. No amount of “must see” propaganda could make you watch Stark Raving Mad, Work with Me, Snoops and the truncated half-hour Ally McBeal reruns.

        Regis Philbin? You quickly knew he was one in a million. But you weren't fooled by the Who Wants to be a Millionaire rip-offs like 21, Greed or Winning Lines. (The success of Survivor may not rub off on CBS' Big Brother; at least the Survivors do something more than sitting around and talking all day.)

        Now get ready for a new cast of TV characters. The six major networks plan 31 prime-time shows (15 comedies and 16 dramas), down from the 36 new offerings a year ago.

        Some of the faces you'll see this fall will be very familiar: Craig T. Nelson, Mykelti Williamson, David Allan Grier, Victoria Principal, Yasmine Bleeth, Steven Weber, Tim Daly and Nikki Cox.

        But being simply a known commodity isn't good enough. Neal Patrick Harris, Jaleel White, Markey Post, Gregory Harrison and Swoosie Kurtz failed to impress you last fall with poorly written or executed series.

        Already NBC's new sitcom with Mr. Richards, “Kramer” from Seinfeld, is in deep trouble. The pilot for his half-hour comedy about a bumbling Los Angeles detective has been scrapped by the network.

        Fox executives have voted Anthony LaPaglia (Murder One) off Mr. Goodman's new Don't Ask comedy, in which the former Roseanne co-star plays a gay father.

        Your disdain for last fall's “youthquake” has ended the saturation of young-skewing shows. This fall we'll see your appetite for four sci-fi series: Dark Angel, Night Visions and Freakylinks (formerly Fearsum) on Fox, and Level 9 on UPN. (Few of you were interested in Harsh Realm, Millennium, The Visitor, The Others in recent years.)

        You'll see fewer new shows because of last year's lower-than-usual casualty rate — 12 survivors from fall, plus five midseason shows — and four hours of Millionaire, your favorite since becoming a regular series in January.

        From the previews I've seen, the most promising are Ms. Midler's The Bette Show on CBS and The Gilmore Girls, a WB multigenerational familydrama starring Lauren Graham (M.Y.O.B.), newcomer Alexis Bledel and Dodge spokesman Edward Herrmann.

        Ms. Midler's divine new comedy is a real hoot. The Bette Show could be the buzz of the press tour for more than one reason: It may stifle your “Is the sitcom dead?” question; and if enough of you watch at 8 p.m. Wednesday, opposite Millionaire, it could dent the game show juggernaut.

        TV critics have many questions for the network executives trying to second-guess your programming tastes. The TV season starts Oct. 2, after NBC's Summer Olympics telecast:

        • Will you make David E. Kelley's Boston Public teachers' drama (Fox) another hit like The Practice — or will you reject it faster than his Snoops and Ally oops?

        • Are you ready to get hooked on a new prime-time soap, Titans (NBC) with Ms. Bleeth and Ms. Principal, or The $treet (Fox), a Wall Street drama by Darren Starr (Melrose Place)?

        • Will you tune in Tim Daly (Wings) as The Fugitive (CBS) as much as your parents did the old David Janssen series — or as infrequently as the Mission: Impossible revival (1988-90)?

        • How many more “reality” series will you watch? Will the “reality” trend burn out faster than the game show craze? Will Survivor emerge as the lone survivor, as Millionaire has?

        Eventually, it will be up to you.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: (513) 768-8330. E-mail: