We are smack in the middle of what is traditionally one of the television industry's biggest months. It's sweeps season, which means cliffhangers, shocking finales and blockbuster special events. Or, that's what it used to be. This month has seen dismal ratings for everything from "American Idol" to "Ugly Betty."
And this is also "upfronts" time, when networks lure advertisers by unveiling new fall shows. Or, that's what it used to be. Last winter, NBC announced it was moving to a rolling schedule of new programming (FOX already does this), rendering the fall premiere season irrelevant. CBS has proffered its handful of new series — two new comedies, three new dramas — and ABC has unleashed its new schedule: A whopping two new shows. They're not even new. There's an Ashton Kutcher-produced game show, "Opportunity Knocks," and a remake of the British time-travel hit "Life on Mars."
What's happening? Audiences have been dwindling for years, and the recent writer's strike threw a supersized wrench into production schedules. Pilots that would have been shot this winter didn't happen, and networks are reluctant to greenlight shows based on untested scripts.
This leaves us with a mighty conservative roster — remakes of international hits like "Kath and Kim" and reworkings of tried and true old brands like "Knight Rider" and "Beverly Hills, 90210." Other series will continue to roll out throughout the year. The promise of Joss Whedon's midseason FOX drama "Dollhouse" is enough to make me still believe in the medium, but the era of tantalizing new shows raining down on us like crisp autumn leaves is over. The rise of reality and game shows, combined with competition from games and the Internet, have made for tough times for actors and writers. The pickings for them on the traditional network path are slim.
Which brings us to Ian Ziering. The former "90210" cast member (and "Dancing with the Stars" rug-cutter) recently directed and starred in an online short, "Man vs. Monday." Just today, we learned Ziering's comedy has been picked up as an original series — on MySpace TV.
The scripted network television series isn't going away, but a guy with a five-minute movie he directed on his cell phone with a script based on a true email isn't exactly a viable alternative to a new J.J. Abrams drama (FOX's "Fringe") with a $10 million pilot budget (allegedly).
We don't suffer from a lack of entertainment. We are, however, seeing a shift in the way we're consuming it. We can and do have it all, the rough and amateurish and the big spectacle. That's the point. We viewers know that, and the networks are only now beginning to grasp it. The choices are limitless, but that means the portions get smaller.
All these years into Internet age, the industry is still scrambling to figure out how to turn our fickle attention into advertising dollars. The upfront winds up downsized. The question for us however remains the same: Is there anything out there worth watching?