I have not a great deal to say about ABC’s or CBS’s lineups. CBS plays it very close to the vest – the network hasn’t yet even decided on some of the shows it will pick up for midseason – while ABC just goes the NBC route of dumping a huge number of shows on the schedule and hoping one of them is a hit.
The most bizarre trend in half-hour comedy is that everybody seems to be trying to make shows that are “for men” or “for women.” ABC has scheduled two mismatched shows – Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing and Chris Moynihan’s Man Up – because they want to have an hour of comedy about the issue of what it means to be a man in a woman’s world. They even picked up what was generally considered their worst idea for a pilot, the cross-dressing Work It, because it’s about masculinity and the “mancession.” In other words, the president of ABC read a magazine article somewhere about how the recession has affected men, and decided that this was a thing that he should build his network around. (The creators of Work It actually had two pilots at ABC. One, Smothered, was supposed to be pretty good and was rumoured to be a likely pickup all through the pilot cycle. At the last minute, the network decided to drop the good pilot and buy Work It instead. I imagine the creators must have been scratching their heads a little.) To balance out the Manly Man comedies, there are comedies with “girl” or “girls” in the titles. ABC and CBS’s best new comedy pilots had virtually the same female-odd-couple premise: ABC’s Apartment 23 (originally Don’t Trust the Bitch In Apartment 23) and CBS’s Two Broke Girls. It’s a thing. And not a particularly interesting thing.
Drama pickups have no obvious rhyme or reason to them. As you may imagine, I kind of admire CBS for their commitment to acting like a real broadcast network: they responded to the erosion of the TV audience by trying to find shows with the broadest possible appeal, rather than trying to compete with cable. (Ironically, by doing so, they came up with The Good Wife, the broadcast drama that comes the closest to competing with the big cable dramas.) It’s a much healthier attitude to the new TV landscape than that of NBC, which constantly trumpets the fact that it’s aiming at affluent people – which is the sort of thing a network should privately boast about to advertisers but be embarrassed about in public.
Still, CBS’s method for getting the most possible viewers cannot be described as exciting: every drama has to be a crime drama of some kind. This is something most of the networks do, to be fair; NBC’s most-anticipated drama, Awake, is a cop show. But other networks’ shows sometimes use the cop-show format to create an accessible episodic core to an “ambitious” semi-serialized project. CBS, in keeping with its accurate belief that TV viewers haven’t changed all that much since the ’70s, prefers shows to be episodic first and foremost. (The Good Wife is a partial exception.) Which is fine, except the network is almost completely committed to one type of episodic drama: the show where an elite team solves mysteries, a crime show with an undercurrent of family dynamics.
Like much of what broadcast networks do, this is carefully calculated to draw in both men and women: the idea is that men will watch for the mystery and women will watch for the family bonding. I have no idea if this is actually true, but that’s the thinking. But my issue with CBS is not that they’re old-fashioned or that they like case-of-the-week shows; it’s that they have only a couple of kinds of case-of-the-week drama, repeated over and over again without much variation throughout the schedule. Of course, that may simply be an unavoidable bi-product of their policy of making mass-appeal shows: USA or TNT has more different types of episodic case-of-the-week drama, but those are cable networks, albeit cable networks that sometimes get more viewers than broadcast shows. The audience erosion may have lead to a situation where even shows we thought of as mass-appeal – spy shows, Macgyver or A-Team type adventures, or family drama like 7th Heaven- may now be niche shows. Which leaves the CSI/NCIS format as one of the few sure-fire things, along with shows that have singing in them.
ABC seems to be trying to test that proposition by picking up several dramas that its own president has described as “escapist,” but that don’t fit into the template of NCIS or House or Bones. Charlie’s Angels is, well, Charlie’s Angels, while Pan Am is betting on the idea that escapism mixed with nostalgia will be a winning formula. And it might; I can’t help but root for any type of drama that is neither a pure serial nor a pure crime procedural. On the other hand, reboots don’t work that well (Hawaii 5-0 has never done as well as CBS expected it to, possibly because of by-the-numbers writing and an uncharismatic star) and Pan Am sort of gives me flashbacks to this: