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Fall TV Preview 2018: The networks continue to search for an identity and find some clues

September 7, 2018

Fall TV Preview 2018: The networks continue to search for an identity and find some clues

CLEVELAND, Ohio – It’s no secret that the traditional broadcast networks have been suffering from something of an identity crisis since the dawn of the 21st century. As innovative, imaginative and intelligent programming increasingly became the province of first the cable universe, then the streaming services, the networks seemed to be fighting a losing battle with uncertainty, doubt and confusion.

The lessons have been hard learned for these network executives trying to compete with the competition blitz. You simply can’t be edgier than “Breaking Bad.” You can’t be as extreme as “American Horror Story.” You can’t be grittier than “Sons of Anarchy.” You can’t be as grandly brutal as “Game of Thrones.”

You can’t play their game. You can’t be them. You have to find the place that’s left you on this ever-expanding TV landscape and work within the restrictions of commercial network programming.

And there have been hints over the last 18 years of how to make this work and work well. Those hints have been called “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family,” two superlative comedies that will be ending long prime-time runs in the spring. More recently, those hints have been called “This Is Us” and “The Good Place.”

These are smart shows that fit comfortably in the traditional broadcast network model, and they prove there is a formula for success even as the overall share of the viewing audience shrinks. And there will be hints scattered throughout this fall season that, perhaps, the networks are getting the idea.

It’s not a programming revolution by any means. Streaming and a few cable channels still occupy the high ground. Yet there is a handful of promising shows, indicating a possible move in the right direction.

There’s ABC heartfelt drama “A Million Little Things,” which could be this season’s “This Is Us.” There’s the CW’s immediately engaging football drama “All American.” There are such solid comedies as NBC’s “I Feel Bad” and ABC’s “Single Parents.”

These aren’t the models of out-there experimentation you’ll find on cable channels and streaming services, and they don’t need to be. That’s the point.

There is a tendency to look at the traditional broadcast networks’ 21 new fall shows (or 22, depending on how you count “The Conners”) and focus on the reboots and revivals. The easy assumption here is to dismiss the new crop with an easy label like “everything old is new again.”

Here must be an obvious sign of the networks’ lack of originality and inspiration. And, to be sure, there are two reboots, CBS’ “Magnum, P.I.” and the CW’s “Charmed,” along with the CBS revival of Candice Bergen’s “Murphy Brown.” And one of the CW’s midseason dramas is a reboot of “Roswell.”

They’re joining lineups that already have reboots of “Hawaii Five-0,” “S.W.A.T.,” “MacGyver” and “Dynasty,” “Murphy Brown” is following revivals of NBC’s “Will & Grace” and ABC’s “Roseanne” (which, without Roseanne Barr, becomes “The Conners”).

And yet, “Charmed” lives up to its name and emerges as one of the best new shows of the season. Cable and streaming services will, without question, continue to dominate the quality equation, but the networks still can summon their own brand of magic. The path, narrow as it is, is there, if (and I grant you that this is an incredibly big if) executives are smart enough to recognize it and follow it.

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