PASADENA, Calif. -- To call a TV show "serialized" is the equivalent of branding it with the Scarlet Letter. That was the discovery du jour, as the executive producers of ABC's "Six Degrees" tried to distance themselves from other programs with continuing stories.
"Six Degrees" follows a disparate group of strangers who find themselves connected to one another in New York City. The show follows a grieving mother (Hope Davis) whose nanny (Erika Christensen) is on the run and is being followed by a public defender (Jay Hernandez), who has a crush on her. That certainly sounds like a show that has the potential to confuse anyone who doesn't stick with it every week, but producers tried to disabuse critics of that notion.
"You will be able to check in every week and feel like you're part of the show," said executive producer Stuart Zicherman. "There's no greater mythology you need to follow."
Executive producer Raven Metzner tried to distance "Six Degrees" even further from the S-word.
"'Serial' gets used a lot in a lot of different ways," he said. "If by serial you mean, 'Do you have to see it every week?,' you don't."
Always cyclical, sometimes the television business swings like a pendulum. Just a few years ago, networks were preaching the virtues of procedural dramas, close-ended programs with no ongoing stories and limited character development.
After the success of "Lost," ABC, NBC and CBS rolled out sci-fi themed shows last fall. All failed.
With the success of soaps "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," the networks, especially ABC, are banking on more serials than in any TV season in recent memory. But in hearing network executives apply the virtues here that they have lauded procedurals for -- they don't require viewers to tune in for every episode; newcomers don't feel lost -- has to make an observer wonder if this won't be a fall of failures.
"The failure rate usually is very high," noted CBS Corp. president Leslie Moonves. "What's interesting to me is a lot of networks are trying to open a lot of new shows."
CBS will premiere only four new series, two with serial elements. NBC will air four serials (of six new series) and ABC has 10 new shows for fall, at least six of them heavily serialized. Fox has five new shows, one that's heavily serialized.
For viewers already hooked on "Lost," "24," "Grey's Anatomy," "Battlestar Galactica" and "Desperate Housewives," there may be an unwillingness to get hooked on more series that require they tune in on a weekly basis.
CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler said viewers don't decide to watch a show based on whether or not it's a serial, but the reaction I get from viewers, particularly younger viewers, is that they do take that into account.
Many of these series have built-in mysteries that are never solved when a show is canceled (witness: "Invasion," "Threshold," "Surface"). Over time, that has to alienate viewers.
"I hope that viewers will give the next serialized shows a shot," said ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson. "But I think it raises the bar for how good serials have to be. People are only going to make an appointment and commit to a certain amount on the air."
Last year at this time, the executive producer of Fox's "Reunion" promised to wrap up his story if the show was canceled early. It was, but he didn't. Both Tassler and McPherson said they'd consider trying to find ways to wrap up the stories of canceled serials online, but neither committed to that for any of their new fall shows.
"No programmer wants to [tick] off their audience," Tassler acknowledged. "When you build that kind of loyalty and you have an audience with legitimate questions about resolution, it behooves us to find a way to provide those answers."
When sitcom "Girlfriends" returns on The CW this fall, it will be without one of the title characters. Actress Jill Marie Jones, who played Toni Childs, has left the series. Creator Mara Brock Akil said Jones wanted to move on, which was a disappointment, but Akil said the parting was amicable.
When the season begins in September, Toni will have moved to New York and the story will deal with how Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross) handles the departure of a best friend.
Now that The CW has uncanceled "7th Heaven," the series will return this fall with a smaller cast. The Rev. Eric Camden (Stephen Collins) and wife Annie (Catherine Hicks) will continue to preside, but their brood has shrunk. David Gallagher (as Simon) and Mackenzie Rosman (as Ruthie) will not return as series regulars. Gallagher has been in and out of the series in the past, but Rosman's character will be explained away as having gone abroad as part of a student exchange program.
Beverly Mitchell (Lucy), George Stults (Kevin), Tyler Hoechlin (Martin) and Haylie Duff (Sandy) will return.
Sandy, an unwed single mother, will attend seminary. Over the summer, Lucy had a miscarriage, while unseen moms Sarah and Mary delivered their sets of twins. Rev. Camden will be diagnosed with a heart ailment that gives him only a year to live -- unless, perhaps, the show gets renewed again.
In January, executives at The WB claimed the network would lose $16 million on "7th Heaven" in the 2005-06 TV season. But CW Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff said her new network won't lose money on the show.
"Because the two companies that own The CW are both responsible for making the show and airing the show," Ostroff said, "and [creator] Brenda [Hampton] and all of the people in production really rolled up their sleeves and we've all worked really hard at being able to bring back the show."
It's believed that many of the cast members took pay cuts to make the show's budget workable in its 11th season.
●ABC's "Lost" will air six episodes in the fall, beginning Oct. 4, and will then take a break for the 13-episode drama "Daybreak," with "Lost" returning for an uninterrupted run February to May.
●NBC has signed film writer-director Spike Lee to develop a new drama series. ... Fox Reality, not available on local cable systems, will air 10 half-hour episodes of "The Rob and Amber Project," following Beaver County native Amber Brkich-Mariano and husband Rob Mariano ("Survivor," "The Amazing Race"). According to Daily Variety, the series will follow the couple as Rob pursues his dream of becoming a professional poker player in Las Vegas. ... Fox owned and operated stations, of which there are none in Pittsburgh, will launch a new national morning show next year. Other stations are likely to air the 9 to 10 a.m. show, hosted by Fox News Channel's Mike Jerrick and Juliet Huddy. ... MTV's "Laguna Beach" returns for its third season at 10 p.m. Aug. 16.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.
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