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Matt Roush: Fall television preview

Matt Roush is the senior television critic at TV Guide. He writes a weekly column that is read by more TV viewers than any other TV column. Prior to joining TV Guide in 1997, Roush was USA Today's senior television critic. He joined the chat room from New York.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Matt Roush, and welcome.

MATT ROUSH: Hello, and happy to have a new season starting! Looking forward to hearing what's on your mind.

CNN: What are your favorite shows for the fall?

ROUSH: My favorites for the fall for returning shows? I'm very curious to see what will happen on series such as the "West Wing," "The X-Files," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "Gilmore Girls." These are largely hour-long shows that left me hanging, and I guess it's fair to say that the drama series are more interesting to me than what happens in comedies, for the most part.

CNN Special: Emmys 2001  

CNN: How did plans for the fall season change when the writers strike was averted?

ROUSH: It's an interesting question, but the answer is that it allowed the new season to progress as business as usual. The premieres are happening on time, with any delays explained by baseball pre-emptions or the usual reasons. The fact is, this is a typical fall roll-out, and that's a great relief.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Hi Matt! What do you think will be the next big issue on "West Wing" after the president gets past the health thing? Will it be a shrinking budget surplus?

ROUSH: I think that what will fuel the new season of the "West Wing" is the very notion of the president running for re-election while facing a grand jury investigation over his health condition. They're adding new characters this season to help him run his campaign, and Stockard Channing is joining the show full time as the First Lady. And she's involved in both his medical story, as a doctor, and his political story as a reluctant First Lady. So I think the fireworks will be considerable as this story takes over the third season.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: I've read that the networks plan to loosen up the language and sexual content of their shows this season. Have you heard of such? Will they be successful?

ROUSH: This has been going on for a long time, this battle between producers and the networks' standards and practices units. I think it's already plenty racy in the 9 and 10 o'clock hours, but with the impact of HBO's programming, especially "The Sopranos" and "Sex in the City," the more adventurous producers of adult drama and comedy will probably aim to go farther, rather than pull back.

Depending on the show, this could be a good thing. Denis Leary's ABC series "The Job" looks and feels like an HBO comedy, and should be allowed to talk like an HBO comedy, but Steven Bochco's new series, called "Philly," seems to be desperately trying to shock with its language, including in the first episode, a lawyer having a breakdown and baring her chest to the jury and judge. It's not as shocking as they think it is, it just looks desperate.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Roush, will we see a larger market share of viewership with reality shows vs. TV sitcoms, such as "Friends," "Frazier," etc.?

ROUSH: In that regard, yes, but I think reality television is bringing a new audience to prime time, and depending on the show, I think it's a viable form of counter-programming, especially against sitcoms. The new series CBS is premiering this week, "The Amazing Race," is going up against the "West Wing," "Felicity," "The Drew Carey Show," and I think it will just add to the number of viewers watching television in that very crowded time period. I like "The Amazing Race," so I think this is a good thing. But sometimes they can use this reality programming like a club, as in NBC's use of "Fear Factor" lately. So, I worry about this trend also burning itself out rather quickly.

CNN: Are we finally approaching that day when broadcasting over the air is passe? Many networks - including AOL Time Warner's own The WB - try to align themselves with a certain demographic. Only ABC, CBS, and NBC can admit to pursuing a broad audience rather than a narrow demographic, and not even THEY like it (for instance ABC playing down the aged demos of "Millionaire," even though it's still in the Top Five).

ROUSH: That's a very tricky issue, and the danger in programming to a demographic, especially as everyone is chasing the same young audience, is that all the shows will begin to look and sound exactly alike. WB fills a niche, but the major broadcasters can't afford only to fill that niche, they must reach out to everybody. That said, I think you'll see the networks get ever more aligned with advertisers to create certain types of programs that will fit purely the advertiser's needs. WB is already airing a show that was created from advertiser's seed money, advertisers who were looking for a family audience to be serviced, and that show is "Gilmore Girls." It just happens to be a great show.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What were some of the biggest cliffhangers of last season that we'll want to see the premiers for?

ROUSH: Easily, the biggest cliffhanger, especially if you're a fan of genre television, was the death of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the show's move from WB to UPN. We know that Buffy will rise from the dead, but we just don't know how. Another big cliffhanger concerns Fox's "The X-Files," because David Duchovney has left the show for good, and we have no idea of what to expect on the show, except that Scully's baby is going to be at the center of many of the stories. I wasn't crazy about this baby story line to begin with, and am very skeptical even now, but that show has confounded my expectations before, and I'm hoping it will do so again.

Another big cliff hanger is, when is "The Sopranos" coming back? And the answer seems to be, not until a year from now, in September, an answer that will please very few of its fans. Another show facing an interesting cliff hanger, behind and in front of the camera, is ABC's "NYPD Blue," which is moving from Tuesdays to Wednesdays, going head to head with "Law and Order" on NBC. This is an impossible choice, and "NYPD"'s producer, Steven Bochco, is understandably unhappy. Also, on the show, Rick Schroder has already left, to be replaced by another former child star, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, from "Saved by the Bell." We're not sure how this happens, but the cast has been photographed at a grave site, so we figure Danny is gone for real. But the entire show is in limbo until November when it returns, and whether it can successfully share a time period with one of TV's most venerated legal dramas over on NBC is anyone's guess.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will "ER" survive all the cast changes?

ROUSH: "ER" has survived many cast changes already, and is still the number one entertainment program on TV. I think it's showing its age these days, and only Maura Tierney of the new cast members has really caught on. (I would like to see her win the Emmy this year, but doubt that will happen.) This is a particularly pivotal year for the show, losing two original cast members, in Eriq LaSalle and Anthony Edwards. They'll be written out during the season, but with the lack of outstanding new cast members to take their place, the show does seem like it will be diminished. I'm not sure that adding Sherry Stringfield, an original cast member who's returning this season, will do much to rectify that. Basically, they just need to tell some good news stories, and it's been a while since that happened.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Matt, do you think shows will be more interactive with the Internet so predominant in people's lives now?

ROUSH: I think that the interactivity will be most noted in the marketing of these shows, always asking you to log on to the network Web sites for more information, or possibly to buy merchandise either seen on the show, or connected to the show. There have been series that include gimmicks where you can go online and choose an ending to an episode, and that may continue. But I think that the shows most likely to use an interactive component will be reality series, such as "Big Brother" on CBS, which will allow you to see more than what the TV show can show you, or allow you to perhaps have an impact on the character's fate. Reality TV is the newest form of TV entertainment, and most likely to take advantage of this new technology.

CNN: What's going to be the first show cancelled?

ROUSH: Always a good question! This season, I think it's going to be a new show and a returning show getting the boot simultaneously. On NBC, a sitcom called "Emeril," starring the TV chef Emeril Legasse, is coming to television under a cloud of negative publicity: that he can't act, that the show is hopelessly retro. And NBC has programmed it on Tuesday nights opposite series as various as "Dharma and Greg," "JAG," "That Seventies Show," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Gilmore Girls." Plus they've attached it to one of the worst comedies from last season, "Three Sisters," which nobody can understand how it got renewed in the first place. So, together, we expect those shows to go away and probably be replaced by one of the summer's hit reality shows, either the disgusting "Fear Factor," or the sadistic "Spy TV."

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What's your opinion of "Dark Angel" and "Witchblade"?

ROUSH: These shows are part of an exciting new trend, in which women are the action heroes, and nowhere near as silly as they used to be in the days of "Wonder Woman." This season, ABC is giving us a series called "Alias" about a female grad student who is actually an undercover spy, and as improbable as it sounds, it's really good. While "Dark Angel" and "Witchblade" are imperfect, they're also intriguing. "Dark Angel" in particular is going to rev up the sci-fi elements in its second season, and I'm very curious to see that show live up to its potential. No question, though, that Jessica Alba, who plays the "Dark Angel," is a breakout star.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

ROUSH: Thanks for the questions, and hope you find something you like this fall, and that it's not playing against your other favorite series, which happens all too often! That's what VCR's were invented for!

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

ROUSH: Thanks, and stay tuned!

Matt Roush joined the chat room via telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Tuesday, September 4, 2001. AOL Time Warner is the parent company of CNN.

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