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Your attention, please! TV networks bring on the noise to get viewers back to the tube

Noise.

Television network presidents were screaming about the need for it this summer. So were writer-producers like Bill Lawrence.

Lawrence, whose successes include "Spin City" and "Scrubs," was almost apologetic in California when speaking about the title and some of the risque content in the pilot of his new ABC comedy, "Cougar Town."

In a news conference, Lawrence noted -- three times -- about the need to make "noise" in 2009, when viewers have so many other options besides network television.

"Right now, the hardest thing in network television -- network, specifically -- is to make noise and to get people to sample something," said Lawrence. "So the roll of the dice I've made . . . is that the title is noisy and that people will be aware of this show."

Lawrence isn't alone in making noise. Fox tried to create noise for its new musical high school series, "Glee," by premiering the pilot last May. It featured a grand finale tune that could be the theme for the 2009-10 season: "Don't Stop Believin'."

The CW is trying to create "noise" with a promotional campaign loaded with double entendres that can't be repeated in a family newspaper.

NBC is trying to create "noise" by endlessly promoting Jay Leno's new 10 p.m. weeknight show.

ABC tried to create "noise" for its compelling new series, "FlashForward," by screening it in a huge ballroom for television critics in Los Angles to watch together like a movie.

The theme of "FlashForward" is a metaphor for the recent troubles of network television. The show is about a paralyzing worldwide blackout that lasts for two minutes and 17 seconds and leads characters to have visions of what life will be like in six months. They don't always like what they see.

The TV seasons of 2007-08 and 2008-09 can be looked at as the blackout years, since a writers' strike pretty much put network TV on hold for two seasons. Now network executives are fearful of what their world will look like in six months if some new series don't make some noise.

The supply of hits is dwindling. Partly because of the writers' strike and an overreliance on dumb reality shows, viewers have been driven to cable shows that have looser rules and are developing the kind of smarter, quality, noisier series that get Emmy nominations.

In the two seasons damaged by the strike, CBS scored with last year's surprise hit, "The Mentalist," and saw its sophomore comedy, "The Big Bang Theory," take off like a rocket. Fox had a demographic hit in the sci-fi series, "Fringe."

But network television hasn't had a great development year since 2004-05, when "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost," "House" and "CSI: NY" all premiered.

ABC has an ambitious slate of programs that includes a new Wednesday night of comedies.

However, NBC has practically raised the white flag by giving Leno one-third of its weeknight schedule. And the CW has gone back to five nights after abandoning Sundays.

With "ER" and "Boston Legal" among the long-running series that retired last year, the need for new hits to replace them is even more apparent. To make matters worse, cable TV annually gets less afraid of carrying series head-to-head against broadcast shows.

The networks are responding by lowering their language standards to compete with cable. They also have gone to the tried and true formats of the past -- family shows, medical shows and legal shows -- and shows with older stars like Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Julianna Margulies, Christine Baranski, Jenna Elfman, Ed O'Neill and Chevy Chase. If none of them hit, network TV could be in worse shape than the citizens of "FlashForward."

Of course, the definition of a hit is changing as viewers watch shows on DVRs, iPods and other time-shifting ways. The technology favors popular, talked-about series, which makes it more difficult for new shows to catch on.

However, HBO's experience with "True Blood" should give the new shows on network TV some hope. The ratings for the vampire series skyrocketed in its second season, which indicates that "noise" and buzz can help young shows catch on if the networks have just a little patience.

Without further ado, here are some answers to the season's questions.

When does the season start? It already has with Fox starting "Glee" and the CW starting its series early. Leno's new show faces a local obstacle when it premieres Monday opposite the end of the Bills opener on "Monday Night Football." Most shows still premiere in the week of Sept. 21.

What is the best pilot? CBS' "The Good Wife," which stars Margulies as the wife of a disgraced politician, gets my vote. I also loved the ABC comedy "Modern Family," but wonder if future episodes can possibly live up to the hysterically funny and suspenseful pilot. I also like the CW's "The Vampire Diaries," which premiered Thursday.

ABC's complicated "FlashForward" looks like it would have been a great movie. I'm just not sure if it will be a great series. The pilot of "Cougar Town" with Courteney Cox (who is adorable) has some very funny moments, but it belongs on HBO, where it wouldn't be censored. The most overrated new comedy pilot is NBC's "Community," which is set at a community college. But I love the cast and see the potential.

What is the worst pilot? "Brothers," the Fox comedy loaded with jokes about Alzheimer's, being disabled and having bad teeth, is in a class of its own. Fox's midseason "Sons of Tucson" isn't much funnier. I'm sorry to say that Grammer's new ABC comedy, "Hank," is very ordinary.

What are the trends? Strong, sexy women are everywhere -- including in "Cougar Town," CBS' "Accidentally on Purpose" and "The Good Wife," CW's "Melrose Place," and NBC's "Mercy" and "Trauma." Medical shows are all the rage again with "Trauma," "Mercy" and "Three Rivers."

Family shows are represented by ABC's "Modern Family," "Middle" with Heaton and Grammer's "Hank," and NBC's midseason "Parenthood." Laugh tracks are out in most comedies, risque dialogue is in.

What are the safest bets? "The Cleveland Show," the spin-off of "The Family Guy," will fit in nicely on Fox's night of Sunday animation. And the spin-off, "NCIS: Los Angeles," should be a hit. Its season premiere is suspenseful, funny and has some great twists.

What network is in the best shape? Fox. It has a hit show on every night but Friday -- with "House," "Fringe" and "Bones" among its strongest series. It even gets an audience on Saturdays with its crime-reality shows, and its animated Sunday shows like "The Simpsons" are ageless. And the addition of Ellen DeGeneres as a judge on "American Idol" should end fears that it will collapse without Paula Abdul.

What network is in the worst shape: NBC, which is trying to move on from the disastrous two-year reign of Ben Silverman.

What sophomore series has the best chance of success? I'd say "Gary Unmarried," the underrated Jay Mohr comedy on CBS. NBC seems to be burying "Southland" on Fridays, where no show can get arrested. Fox is giving "Dollhouse" a second shot on Fridays, too.

When do "Lost" and "24" Return? "24" returns Jan. 17 with a two-hour episode set in New York City. The cast includes Mykelti Williamson as the new CTU leader and Anil Papoor ("Slumdog Millionaire") as a Middle Eastern leader on a peace mission. The final season of "Lost" is currently scheduled to begin in February 2010.

Who are the best cast additions? Drea de Matteo ("The Sopranos") joins "Desperate Housewives" along with Jeffrey Nordling, whose principled character died on "24" last season. And Linda Hunt has joined the cast of "NCIS: Los Angeles."

What is the riskiest move? ABC's decision to air four new comedies on Wednesday trumps NBC's decision to carry Leno every weeknight. The comedies are more expensive, and NBC really has little to lose with Leno.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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>NETWORK TV'S FRESH FACES

While this is a year that the networks are bringing back older stars, there are several relatively fresh network TV faces who could quickly grab magazine covers. Among them: Taylor Schilling and Jamie Lee Kirchner (NBC's "Mercy"), Gillian Jacobs (NBC's "Community"), Katie Cassidy, (CW's "Melrose Place"), Joseph Fiennes and Sonya Walger (ABC's "FlashForward") and Sofia Vergara ("Modern Family").

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>Enthusiasm for cable is on the rise

As if broadcast TV doesn't have enough problems, cable TV has several popular shows returning this fall and will premiere some new ones. Here's a partial list.

* HBO brings back Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" next Sunday and premieres a new comedy, "Bored to Death," on the same night. By the third episode, "Enthusiasm" reunites all the "Seinfeld" actors in what is being called "a non-reunion, reunion."

* John Lithgow is the new villain in Showtime's "Dexter," which returns Sept. 27, along with David Duchovny's "Californication."

* FX returns "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" on Thursday. "Sons of Anarchy" returned last week, "Nip/Tuck" returns Oct. 14, and a new animated spy comedy, "Archer," is coming sometime this fall.

* USA Network, which was the summer's hot cable network, premieres a new drama, "White Collar," about a con artist and an FBI agent who team up to catch notorious criminals, on Oct. 23.

* And the renamed Syfy premieres the latest in the "Stargate" franchise, "Stargate Universe," with Lou Diamond Phillips, Ming-Na and Robert Carlyle, on Oct. 2.

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