It used to be that midseason was a tryout time and dumping ground for new television series that failed to make the networks' fall schedules. Giving flawed series a few showings to recoup some production costs made more sense than burying them before they ever aired - even if there was little hope of their ever catching on.
But that's not the case anymore. Midseason has become a second season unto itself, and this year it is starting earlier than ever - tonight - with a lineup featuring the return of several of television's most popular shows, as well as a promising roster of new dramas, sitcoms and reality series.
"It's not just about fall anymore," said Preston Beckman, vice president of strategic programming for Fox, which last summer went to year-round scheduling of new series. "If you just look at what we have coming in January, for example, you can see how important that part of the programming year is to us."
In coming weeks, Fox will start new seasons for three of its most popular and successful series - the counter-terrorism thriller 24 (Jan. 9), the national talent contest American Idol (Jan. 18) and Simple Life 3 (Jan. 26), with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie going Greyhound in search of work.
Idol, with its trio of judges and thousands of hopefuls, is the network's franchise series, a show that single-handedly carried Fox to record ratings during February and May sweeps periods last year. Thanks to Kiefer Sutherland's searing performance as Jack Bauer, 24 has earned more critical respect for the network than any other drama on its schedule. Simple Life, meanwhile, with its trashy stars and sophisticated take on social class differences, has been a big hit with young viewers.
Fox will also launch two new dramas, Jonny Zero (Jan. 14) and Point Pleasant (Jan. 19). The former stars Franky G as ex-con-turned-crime fighter, while Point Pleasant features Elisabeth Harnois as a young woman who washes ashore at a New Jersey beachfront community and turns out to be the devil's spawn. Think Twin Peaks meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Off-beat gains ground
If there is a theme to the midseason it is found in shows featuring just such off-beat premises. The phenomenal success of ABC's Desperate Housewives, which re-imagined the prime-time soap opera, and Lost, which dared to take the disaster-movie formula and boldly adapt it to weekly TV drama, is largely responsible for the sudden willingness by network programmers to take risks.
"They really have widened our playing field on a creative front," Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, senior vice president for drama development at ABC, said of her two hit dramas. "Last year, it felt as if dead-body-of-the-week procedurals were the only way to attract huge audiences, and there were so many of those it felt almost impossible to create a fresh variation on the theme. ... But the idea that people really are hungry for things that are intelligent, entertaining and most of all distinctive inspires us to take more chances."
Medium, a new NBC series premiering tonight, mixes genres - the family drama and the cop show - with Patricia Arquette playing a 30-year-old mother of two and part-time law student who believes dead people are talking to her and that she can see the future. Produced by Glenn Gordon Caron, who did a bit of genre mixing as creator of ABC's Moonlighting, the series features a psychic mom using her powers on a part-time basis as a consultant for the district attorney in Phoenix, Ariz. As improbable as it might sound, Arquette's character is named and based on real-life psychic Allison Dubois.
But she's not nearly as improbable as the character identified as a "dying clown" (Tom Poston) in the pilot of Committed, a sitcom premiering tomorrow night on NBC. Starring Jennifer Finnigan and Josh Cooke as young opposites who attract, the sitcom set in New York City goes out of its way to take chances.
From the clown who lives in the closet of Finnigan's character (thanks to a tough sublet contract), to her passive-aggressive friend who uses a wheelchair, Committed strives (sometimes too hard) to be different from other network sitcoms - even as it borrows from such cable hits as USA's Monk in making its leading man an obsessive-compulsive.
Blame `The Sopranos'
While there are many reasons for the change in the way networks now approach the midseason, none is more important than the rise of cable programming in recent years. If a watershed date is needed, try Jan. 10, 1999, the night that HBO premiered a new drama about a Mafia boss in midlife crisis, The Sopranos.
Launching The Sopranos in January was part of a larger strategy employed by the wiser cable programmers of premiering new series during those times when the networks were least active - summertime and the non-sweeps midseason months of January, March and April. With audience erosion continuing to take its toll on advertising revenues, the networks can no longer allow cable any competition-free months.