Oprah's announcement yesterday that she's moving her Harpo Films alliance from ABC to HBO was yet another nail in the coffin for broadcast TV networks -- which can't seem to get a break these days (whooped at the Emmys, and the Globe nominations, even the ratings ... down 13 percent from last year in the all-important 18-49 demographic for ABC, CBS, CW, Fox and NBC.
Here, Boston Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert prescribes nine things the old networks could do to have a fighting chance against the cable networks ...
The time has come for network TV to get the circulation going again, to regain the respect of viewers. The doctor is in, with some advice on how to get healthy.
NO MORE OVERINDULGENCE
1. Follow "Lost" into the limited-run business. Start a series, and if it catches on, announce an end date. Viewers are weary from shows that run until they're limping. If finish dates were announced for "The Office," which is losing its oomph, or "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," which is losing William Petersen next month, or "Prison Break," which is losing its mind, I bet the writers and actors -- and the viewers -- would perk up for the remaining tenure.
Sure, it stinks when networks start serial dramas such as "Dirty Sexy Money" and then cut them down too soon. But the greater evil is the overstaying guest, the show that won't go away. Leave us wanting more, and we'll want more.
A STAY AT THE CURRENT-EVENTS SPA
2. Capitalize on the public interest. Was anybody talking about anything other than political humor on TV during the election? Are all eyes not on the incoming administration and the economy? Cable has long had Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; give prime-time network viewers a half-hour news-related comedy -- not a "Saturday Night Live" rip-off, but a tightly written nonfiction satire that will attract politically active guests. And put a substantive personality like Stewart at the helm, one who has a brain and some nerve. No, Jay Leno won't do the trick.
HAVE A WEEKLY PLAY DATE
3. Blow the Saturday-night schedule wide open. Right now, the networks fritter away this weekly block on reruns and movies. It's the equivalent of throwing up your hands and retreating. Instead, the networks should be using Saturday as a playground, a sort of TV repertory house. Put up the original UK version of "The Office." Run some of the DVD extras that found their way onto TV-on-DVD sets. Take a series such as "Freaks and Geeks" or "Arrested Development" that have gained cred after cancellation and rerun 'em. A lot of viewers might get a kick out of seeing James Franco or Michael Cera before they became movie stars. Or give us a second look at a show such as "Watching Ellie," the real-time comedy with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Steve Carell that was ahead of its time. Program with an eye to surprise.
4. I really, really, really want a scripted TV comedy about a reality show. I know, TV shows about TV shows don't always work ("Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"), but sometimes they do ("The Comeback," "The Larry Sanders Show," "30 Rock"). And when they work, they are a gift to viewers who resent being treated as if we don't know what's really going on behind the scenes in entertainment. It's time for the networks to acknowledge -- and celebrate, and exploit -- the fact that we all know about just how fake reality shows are. Remember the "MILF Island" bit on "30 Rock" last season? It killed.
REST YOUR PITCHING ARM
5. Toy with new commercial models. Fox has been experimenting with a new approach -- they're calling it "Remote-Free TV" -- during the sci-fi series "Fringe." The idea is to run fewer but more expensive ads with fewer interruptions. An hour of "Fringe" may contain only 10 minutes of ads and Fox promo, compared to the usual 20-plus. This tack evokes a less cluttered, more pay-cable-like atmosphere. At a time when we're becoming used to watching commercial-free TV courtesy of DVRs and cable, breaking up the momentum of a drama too many times feels irritating and disrespectful. Give us the sell before and after a show, or once or twice during.
BUILD A RESISTANCE TO BUGS
6. Clean up the screen. Why do you position those little promo "bugs" -- in the bottom corner, but sometimes all over the place -- during the content of an episode? I know, you want to push your other series as often and as conspicuously as possible, to get the viewers of "CSI" over to "Eleventh Hour" and to force promo onto DVR users. But it's degrading. We expect to find pop-up ads on the Internet; make network TV a step up from Web surfing.
GATHER YOUR STRENGTH
7. Please. Cut back on the awards shows. You're blowing one of your signature resources. Between the Grammys, the Emmys, the Oscars, and the Golden Globes, there is more than enough public back-patting and self-love on the networks for any given year. Let the niche cable channels pick up the rest, so that the networks' major award shows will have a chance to become special again.
INCREASE THE DOSE OF FUNNY
8. Fix the comedy situation, stat. Seduce A-list comedy stars and writers, and go out on a limb by creating unstereotypical characters for them. No one needs to watch another chubby hubby and his beautiful, shrewish wife. If more sitcoms had the pizzazz and relevance of "30 Rock," or the originality of the early years of "The Office" more distinctive comics might be willing to visit or -- as in the case of Will Ferrell -- revisit the small screen. A reputation for mediocre comedy has dogged the networks for years, while network dramas have maintained a degree of respect; that needs to change fast.
USE DIFFERENT MUSCLE GROUPS
9. Don't become a tacky, utilitarian strip mall of crime procedurals. You're already on the verge. OK, so "The Mentalist" is a hit, and the "CSI" shows perform really well, and so do "Criminal Minds" and "NCIS." Bravo. Don't go any further into clone mode and deluge the market, as you did with reality TV. If scripted network TV is solely identified with one genre, it will be ever-more useless when that genre is exhausted.