The networks' fall television season doesn't officially start for two more weeks. But for viewers, it starts tonight, with Fox launching its lineup of new shows and bringing back such hits as "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children."
Next week, ABC and CBS will roll out so many of their new shows that more than half of the 27 new series will have premiered on Fox, CBS, ABC and NBC by the official start date. The best new series of the season -- ABC's "My So-Called Life" -- is going into its third week.
FYI, the "official" TV season is that 30-week period from Sept. 18 to April 15, during which time Nielsen ratings are used by networks to determine rankings for the year -- bragging rights, so to speak. The networks roll out their shows early to get a jump on the competition. But it has never before been done to this extent.
This year, there is no new series that has created the kind of buzz that ABC's "NYPD Blue" did last year. In fact, there's only one new series that leading advertising agencies and network sales departments are willing to label a hit -- NBC's "Madman of the People," with Dabney Coleman. The main reason is that it follows "Seinfeld" on Thursdays, not because of any intrinsic merit.
Last year, dubbed "the year of living cautiously" in Hollywood, was a relatively good year for the networks -- with 14 of 35 new shows making the cut to return this fall, vs. only seven winners the year before.
The explanation of why there isn't a lot of excitement being generated by this crop of new shows is that they are the product of the networks' imitating what worked last year. They are playing it conservatively.
"Last season was a tough act to follow, and the networks have chosen to follow it very carefully -- with more stability and conservatism than one would wish," says Betsy Frank, senior vice president and media buyer for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising.
But there's a deeper reason for the fact that there are fewer new shows and less innovation than in recent years. It's connected to larger forces affecting network TV. The key to it is brand identity -- the buzzword of network executives during the summer press tour.
Faced with the long-term prospect of 500 channels of competition, and the urgent short-term need to hold viewers during an unprecedented affiliate shake-up, each of the networks has stepped up its efforts to fine-tune a distinctive programming identity that will make viewers seek it out.
"The brand is what matters, absolutely," says George Schweitzer, executive vice president for marketing at CBS. "The value of the CBS brand has never been greater than you will see in the year ahead, particularly as viewers search in key markets for CBS programming."
As a result, networks are being more selective -- putting on only those shows that fit the identity they are trying to create.
If it works, some viewers will find themselves spending more time with a given network than ever before.
What network you watch most now will say a great deal about you. As one network programmer said this summer: "You know that '60s thing about you are what you eat? Well, with us these days, it might not be that you are what you watch, but we definitely believe that you watch what you are."
Here are the identities and strategies for each network this year:
NFL football, and the men who watch it, are the big stories at Fox this year.
Fox stole the NFL franchise from CBS with a bid of $1.58 billion for four years, and Rupert Murdoch believes he can use the games to bring new male viewers to Fox's non-football, prime-time schedule.
How? Watch today and tonight as Fox uses an NFL football doubleheader to promote its prime-time lineup of new and returning shows.
"Sunday, Sept. 4, will be the primary platform from which everything else will spring as we dive into the new season," says Sandy Grushow, the president of Fox Entertainment.
John Madden, Pat Summerall and the other announcers will promote the prime-time shows during the games, and Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long will make appearances throughout prime time to introduce the shows.
The new series that typifies Fox-think this year is "Hardball," a small-screen version of "Major League."
The producers say the idea for the locker-room sitcom came straight from Fox executives who called them in after Fox won the NFL rights last December. They told the producers they wanted a jock sitcom to keep male viewers tuned to Fox after the games ended.
Two other Sunday shows debut tonight -- "Fortune Hunter," an adventure show about a modern-day James Bond type, and "Wild Oats," a show about twentysomethings and sex. Both are targeted at men.
The biggest risk for Fox this year is in all the shows it has moved to new times and nights.
As Howard Stringer, the president of CBS, puts it, "Fox has moved a lot of its shows, which is either bold or stupid, you take your pick."
One of the key moves goes into effect tonight as "The Simpsons" starts its new season at 8 p.m., a hotly contested time period.