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Alan Pergament: Network TV's fall season has slim pickings as future is increasingly questioned

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Monarch (copy)

Susan Sarandon and Trace Adkins star in "Monarch," a drama about the country music business. It is the only new fall series on Fox.

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You may have noticed a Fall TV preview was carried Sept. 11 in this newspaper featuring new network, cable and streaming series.

I didn’t write the preview for one of the few times in decades. It used to be such an important part of the job. But times have changed.

Two TV critics for The New York Times, James Poniewozik and Margaret Lyons, even discussed it in a joint column last Sunday with the headline, What Does ‘Fall Season’ Even Mean Nowadays?

Fall TV season doesn’t mean much, partly because the broadcast networks don’t seem to care about the fall anymore.

They only premiere about a dozen new fall series and aren’t concerned about giving critics the chance of viewing pilots early enough to review and promote them.

The networks used to make pilots available well in advance for newspapers and magazines like TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly to promote them in special fall preview editions before the season began. In a sign of the times,  Entertainment Weekly ceased production of its print edition in February. 

The networks apparently have ceased caring about promotion from print publications as more and more of the publications emphasize their online products that don’t need as much lag time to plan coverage.

The new broadcast TV season kicked off Sept. 11 with the premiere of the new Fox series set in the country music world, “Monarch.” It stars Susan Sarandon and country singer Trace Adkins and got a lot of media attention because it was one of only a few new series available for preview before this week.

It is the only new fall series on Fox, which generally avoids introducing fall series because it carries so much postseason baseball, including the World Series.

It is part “Nashville” and part “Dallas,” both of which I enjoyed. “Monarch” is full of stories about sibling rivalries and parental regrets set to country music. It seems so 1990s. I’ll pass and stick to listening to “The Highway” on Sirius radio for my country fix.

CBS made its three new pilots available to see with the caveat they weren’t ready to review.

I wasn’t impressed by any one of them. I felt a little sorry for one of my favorite actors, Jimmy Smits, and for veteran character actor Richard Kind, who are in the new police drama, “East New York,” headlined by Amanda Warren (“The Leftovers”). She plays a precinct boss in Brooklyn, as CBS continues to embrace strong female characters. It also seemed for the most part so 1990s.

The CBS drama “Fire Country,” which stars Billy Burke and Diane Farr, centers around prisoners whose sentences can be reduced if they volunteer to risk their lives by fighting California fires. It is based on a real program and would have made for a decent TV movie. But as all the intertwined relationships between the prisoners and regular firefighters were revealed in the pilot, I chuckled a little about the coincidences.

The third new CBS series, “So Help Me Todd,” is supposed to make you chuckle as Skylar Astin plays the tech-savvy son of a skillful lawyer played by Marcia Gay Harden who wishes he would get his life in order. It is mildly amusing and made me smile a few times. But I doubt I’m going to watch this silliness more than once or twice more.

You may have seen a promo for NBC’s most attention-getting new series, the sequel to the 1990s series “Quantum Leap,” a few times during the Buffalo Bills’ dismantling of the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.

That was as much as I had seen, too, until the pilot became available for review Tuesday. It is what is referred to as a premise pilot, as it explains the premise in which the main character, Dr. Ben Song (Raymond Lee), time travels to help people in precarious situations. It is a mind-blowing mess with wooden dialogue and acting.

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A new ABC series, “Alaska Daily,” starring Hilary Swank, seems right up my alley because it is set in a newspaper, hasn’t been available to preview as of this writing.

The reduction in the number of new network series comes at a time the future of linear or traditional television has become increasingly questioned.

NBC recently caused a stir with a report that it was considering giving back the 10 p.m. hour to its affiliates like WGRZ-TV to cut down on costs.

Ratings for 10 p.m. entertainment programs have dropped, partly because people go to bed early and partly because they know they can watch at a more convenient time through DVRs or the network streaming sites.

If the 10 p.m. hour is dropped, that might mean affiliates would fill the time with more local news programming, which would be cost effective even if it isn’t needed.

With the networks all streaming their shows, I wonder about the long-term need for them to even have affiliates several years down the road.

Former Disney chief Bob Iger caused another stir recently at a conference when addressing the future of traditional television.

“Linear TV and satellite is marching toward a great precipice and it will be pushed off,” Iger reportedly said. “I can’t tell you when, but it goes away.”

He also questioned the viability of all streaming services.

“I don’t think all streamers are created equal. I don’t think they’ll all make it,” Iger said.

I tend to agree with Iger on both counts. Who can afford to have all the streaming sites or the time to watch all the scripted series? FX’s John Landgraf recently told critics there were about 360 scripted series available from January to June on streaming, cable and network TV.

That’s probably why I rarely look at the cable guide to see what is on network television nightly because I am usually drawn to programs on streaming sites or sporting events on cable.

The one network show I wasn’t going to miss last season, “This Is Us,” ended its run in May and there is nothing on NBC’s schedule likely to replace it.

Another NBC series that I regularly watch, “New Amsterdam,” is ending its run with 13 episodes this season starting Tuesday.

The only other network series I regularly watch are CBS’ “Blue Bloods” and ABC’s “A Million Little Things.” “A Million Little Things” doesn’t return until 2023.

A million little things may lead to the death of traditional TV.

If Iger’s prediction becomes true, it is my view that the slide began when network TV began relying on cheap reality television programming rather than look for innovative scripted series.

But perhaps it is as inevitable as the death of the printed edition of Entertainment Weekly.

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TV Critic

Alan Pergament has had a variety of roles at The News since 1970, including as a news and sports reporter. He has been the TV columnist since 1982, with more than year off for good behavior. He is a member of the national Television Critics Association.

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