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John Doyle: Television

This Fox seems less cunning and swift these days Add to ...

The person who first uttered the phrase “travel broadens the mind” had, obviously, never been to Los Angeles.

L.A. is a narrow-focus town. The business side of showbiz is all that matters. All biz, all the time, even while the “show” part of things is going on. Sure, some people must go about their business here, not caring much about movies or the TV racket, but in countless visits here I have yet to meet one of them.

Once, I was en route from the airport to the hotel where the TV critics’ press tour is based, and all appeared to be going well. Then, as the cab pulled up at the hotel, the driver spotted Reba McEntire standing outside. He was gone like a shot, calling out “Reba McEntire, Reba McEntire” while I was left to pull the luggage from the trunk and follow him as he followed McEntire, with me going “Hello, can I get a receipt? Hello, can I get a receipt?”

This time, I arrived here well after midnight, later than expected, and then faced the Fox presentation on five hours sleep. Now that’s a bracing experience.

Fox – the entertainment channel, not the news channel I was talking about on Tuesday – is in decline. The fizz is gone. Time was, Fox executives faced the press with the strut of mortals who could bend the universe. Now, not so much.

Everything that illustrates the sheer weirdness of American network TV – that crazy confluence of quality entertainment and utter crap – is usually on full display when the Fox network takes the stage here. Fox was once the epitome of effervescent network TV, risk-taking and as raucous as all get out. It had cool dramas, cheesy sitcoms – The Simpsons, 24, Arrested Development, The O.C., House and, of course, American Idol. Now Fox seems a tad frumpy, a teensy bit desperate. Like all networks except CBS, Fox has seen a decline in viewers this TV season. Fox finished last in total viewers for 2010 among the four major networks and tied with the hopeless NBC for 18- to 49-year-old viewers.

Fox is now in the same situation as everyone else – essentially out of ideas. In fact, everything that Fox presented here spoke to the poverty of imagination in network TV right now.

First up was The Chicago Code, a drama debuting Feb. 7 that stars Jennifer Beals as Chicago’s new chief of police, a woman determined to tackle corruption in the city. Her ally is a tough detective (Jason Clarke), and there are car chases. The show is good, but not great. Created by Shawn Ryan, who also created the classic cop show The Shield, it only manages to make cable dramas look even more interesting. You sense that while this is a tough-minded, well-crafted show, it’s never going to be as adult as it could be. It doesn’t matter if it turns into a minor hit – it still stands as an example of network drama being less sophisticated than cable drama.

Next, the rejigged American Idol: My take is that the addition of music superstars Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler for the 10th season (starting next Wednesday) dilutes the show’s core appeal. It was a wide-appeal show about creating singing stars from nobodies. Now it’s more about the ultra-famous judges. With Simon Cowell gone, Idol is tired and fading.

The drama Terra Nova is Fox’s big-ticket drama for this spring. Produced by Steven Spielberg, it’s big, big, big – both very expensive to make and a very “high-concept” idea, as they say here in the TV racket. What is it? It’s set in the near future and tells the tale of a group of people sent 85 million years back in time to “fix what went wrong.” Thus, dinosaurs roam around as people from the future attempt to tweak the Earth’s history. Or something. A brief look at the content here suggests it will rely on spectacular special effects to draw in viewers. Otherwise, it looks like very ordinary sci-fi storytelling. It also looks like a very, very expensive gamble on a genre that rarely works on TV.

Following that was a press conference for a comedy, Traffic Light, set to debut Feb. 8, a show as uninspiring as its title. It’s a romantic comedy, of sorts. That is, it’s about three male best friends and their love lives. Mike is married with a kid, Adam has just moved in with his girlfriend and Ethan is a bachelor and sticking with that. (Don’t worry, you’ve never heard of any of the actors in it.) The gist is, men want to booze and wander, while women want solid, lasting relationships. Female writers here hated it, seeing it as sexist nonsense, which it is.

Finally, there was Breaking In, premiering April 6, an insufferable comedy about a group of cool people working for a security company. See, in order to improve security for big companies they get to have fun breaking all the company’s security rules. Hilarity ensues, but not intentionally. The wretched thing stars Christian Slater making another ham-fisted attempt at TV acting. The show makes CBC’s InSecurity look like a masterpiece.

There is nothing here to save Fox from disaster. At the Fox executive session, Kevin Reilly, president of Entertainment, said, “A hit and a failure are only a few strands of DNA apart.” He was talking about the ratings failure of Fox’s critically acclaimed Lone Star last fall. Of this mid-season menu, he said he was confident of the arrival of new hits. “We’re not just throwing spaghetti at the wall,” he declared, defensively. But, in fact, Fox is indeed throwing anything at the wall and hoping it sticks.

Fox’s sister channel, the Fox News Channel, is doing great in the ratings, to the chagrin of many. It knows its business – how to monetize simplistic, right-wing rants. Fox (the entertainment channel) is floundering. That’s the reality here because that’s the news on the business side of things. And L.A. is only about business.

Maybe the person who said travel broadens the mind was based in L.A. and found that it was leaving L.A. that broadened the mind. Yep, that figures.

 

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