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After the finales, then what?

NBC, broadcast networks struggle to create the next big thing

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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After 11 years, "Frasier" will say its final goodbye on May 13.
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(CNN) -- For a decade, "Friends" and "Frasier" have represented the best of what many critics say sitcoms can offer.

Although very different kinds of shows -- "Frasier" often a classic of farce, "Friends" very much the hip young show of its time -- the two were well-written and smoothly done, attracted wide audiences, and earned hundreds of millions of dollars in syndication.

On May 14, they will both be a memory, only to be recovered in reruns -- and network television, grasping at reality shows, lost in the cable universe, will be wondering how to recover.

The shows are going off the air within a week of one another: "Friends" on Thursday, May 6; "Frasier" a week later. The "Friends" finale, in particular, is being seen as the end of an era, with NBC counting down each remaining show and charging about $2 million for a 30-second spot for the finale -- Super Bowl-type dollars.

After they're gone, NBC is likely to feel the pain.

"'Frasier' is a show for the ages," notes Ray Richmond, TV columnist for trade paper The Hollywood Reporter. "It at least matched its predecessor, 'Cheers,' in quality. It had great writers, the perfect cast. ... It was like a great stage play each week."

And "Friends," he notes, "touched a nerve. It had a fan base from the get-go." It was also something rare in TV, an ensemble show that gave equal weight to each of its six characters, "and they took [the possibilities] to the max," says Richmond.

The end of both well-loved shows will leave giant holes in NBC's schedule.

So, now what?

From dying duck to dynasty

NBC has been in worse spots.

In the late '70s and early '80s, the network was considered by many to be a joke, the home of "Supertrain" and "Hello Larry," buried in third place in what was, at the time, a three-network universe. The hot form was the prime-time soap -- "Dallas," "Dynasty," "Knots Landing" -- but NBC didn't have any that were hits.

And sitcoms? They were in a severe slump, according to many articles at the time. Indeed, of the top 10 shows of 1982-83, only two were sitcoms -- "M*A*S*H" and "Three's Company." At one time in 1980, NBC had only two on its prime-time schedule: "Diff'rent Strokes" and "The Facts of Life."

Times changed. The network came up with a few hits -- "The A-Team," "Hill Street Blues" -- and stuck with "Cheers" in 1982 when the program was last in the ratings.

And then, in 1984, came "The Cosby Show."

"'Cosby' rescued sitcoms," says Marc Berman, the "Programming Insider" columnist for Mediaweek.

By the middle of the '80s, NBC ranked No. 1 and established Thursdays as what came to be called "Must-See TV," home to "Cosby," "Family Ties" and "Cheers," and later "Mad About You," "Seinfeld" and "Friends." Even in the years since, when it's occasionally fallen to No. 2 in the ratings, the network claimed to be No. 1 in adults 18-49 -- considered by most to be the most desirable demographic for advertisers.

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"The Cosby Show" was credited for "rescuing sitcoms," according to Mediaweek columnist Marc Berman.

But now the TV landscape has changed. Forget three channels -- now it's 300. The networks are owned by big corporations and quick profits are more important than ever. Sitcoms are in another slump, with only one powerhouse -- "Everybody Loves Raymond" -- and rumors are that show is getting ready to pull the plug.

In the wake of "Friends" and "Frasier," NBC is pinning its hopes on two shows. One is a sitcom -- the "Friends" spin-off, "Joey."

The other is a reality show, "The Apprentice." And that, say observers, could be trouble.

"And here's what's going to rescue us -- Donald Trump!" Richmond says, mocking what an NBC exec might say. "This is the face of NBC? It's almost silly and a little embarrassing."

"Reality is a short-term solution," adds Berman. "In the long run, there won't be a benefit. ... But the networks are looking for the most eyeballs."

Reality shows a quick fix

But they may be bankrupting their future. Reality shows, Berman notes, don't do well in reruns, and many won't be saleable in syndication, which rakes in huge profits.

Also, reality shows burn out quickly. "Joe Millionaire" was a smash in its first season and a failure in its second. ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" made the network a billion dollars in 18 months but was gone in three years.

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"Arrested Development" was one of the most critically acclaimed comedies of the 2003-2004 season.

"If you're building for the future, scripted television is your farm system," notes Richmond, "... but they [TV executives] care more about holding on to their jobs." That means make money now, worry about the future later.

The networks are willing to take occasional risks, but they've been quick to yank shows that don't work, whether they're promising comedy-dramas such as "Wonderfalls" and "Freaks and Geeks" or brave cult shows like "The Tick." And observers are wondering what's going to happen to this year's best-reviewed comedy, "Arrested Development," which has been struggling in the ratings.

It's easier to stick with the tried, true and trendy, which currently means investigative crime shows and reality programming.

"I feel like the sort of wonder you can create from small worlds of fiction is totally in danger of extinction because people ... don't have the patience to nurture that kind of journey," "Wonderfalls" creator Todd Holland told The Associated Press.

'Welcome to my nightmare'

The growth of reality programming has also hurt talent managers and agencies, which are finding a shrinking market for their clients.

"Welcome to my nightmare of a life. It's pretty miserable because I'm a manager and have 15 clients," Perspective Management talent manager Gregg Steiner says in an e-mail from Sherman Oaks, California.

With fewer scripted shows, there are fewer pilots, fewer full-time parts, fewer guest spots, he observes. "[A client] goes on 20 auditions to get maybe one booking," Steiner says.

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Cable television produces buzz-worthy programming such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

And then there's cable, where the buzz lives, from "The Sopranos" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to "Monk," "The Shield" and "The Office."

"Cable has nothing to lose," notes Richmond. "Cable networks only need to find a niche audience for success."

Not so for the major broadcast networks. The kind of rating that means smash on cable may mean cancellation on ABC.

But don't bring down the curtain yet, warns Mediaweek's Berman. The networks' audiences may be shrinking, their parent corporations may be more bottom-line oriented, but they still bring in the biggest audiences and huge profits. And, he emphasizes, programming trends are notoriously cyclical.

Just remember what people said about the sitcom in the early '80s.

"What the networks need to do is push up their comedy focus," he says. "It's all about one finding a breakout comedy. Then all of them will try it."


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