NEW YORK " Many years ago, during an oil crisis, Chevrolet announced a new car was coming.
It would be small, roomy and fuel-efficient, Chevy promised. But in the breathless warm-up campaign, not much more was revealed (at first, the car didn't even have a name).
"You'll see," teased the ads, introducing the car as a promise and a dream.
What does the car that, in fall 1970, arrived as the Chevy Vega have to do with fall TV in 2008? If you have to ask, you never drove a Vega.
The broadcast networks' new shows have been announced and will be heavily promoted. But there's still nothing much to see. Fewer pilots than usual were shot this year, due in part to the Hollywood writers strike and the straight-to-series policy gaining favor at some networks.
With many rookie series only now going into production, lots of them exist as titles, concepts, scripts, stars and time slots on the schedule (all subject to change). Even more than past seasons, this fall will usher in a roster of promises and dreams.
In previous years, a TV critic could expect to preview a majority of fall series by mid-June. DVDs would arrive from each network with the caveat that "numerous changes may be made" before the airdate. These works-in-progress offered useful clues to what awaited the audience come fall. They gave critics a chance to start spreading the word about any new series that stood out.
So far this summer, we critics have gotten a peek at just a half-dozen upcoming shows. This has left me with idle time to ponder a couple of questions:
- What effect, if any, will all the changes and disruptions in production have on the fall series that result?
- When the new shows are unveiled, will viewers notice or care?
On the five broadcast networks, there will be only 16 series premiering this fall. Last fall, there were nearly 30.
Of course, fewer can be a good thing. Why should the viewer face an avalanche of new series (more than can be adequately sampled before the networks pull the plug on their weak starters)?
Instead, networks will be parceling out their series through the year ahead.
But what about the short term? Will the fall rollout, such as it is, prove to be a nonevent?
Between now and then, NBC (and its many sister channels) is packaging an event that, in scale, at least, stands to overshadow everything else: the Olympics. Not so much sports as storytelling (if past coverage is any indication), the 2008 Olympic Games will be an exercise in reality TV, human-interest drama, characters to cheer and identify with, as well as wholesome, family friendly sex appeal ... two and one-half weeks of it ... 3,600 hours of it.
Then, one day after the flame is doused, the Democratic National Convention begins, followed close behind by the GOP convention right after Labor Day. Though neither of these "limited series" is likely to be a Nielsen blockbuster, both should deliver a major revelation: each party's vice presidential running mate.
But even with the Republicans' closing gavel, broadcast TV will be facing yet more competition. Cable networks have seeded the fall with impressive stuff.
For instance, "The Shield" will begin its final season on FX, also premiering "Sons of Anarchy," a drama about a motorcycle gang with Katey Sagal and Ron Perlman. Showtime has fresh seasons of "Dexter" and "Californication."
HBO resumes its popular comedy "Entourage" and introduces a drama about modern vampires, "True Blood." TNT has "Raising the Bar," a new courtroom drama from Steven Bochco ("NYPD Blue"). In October, NBC's own celebrated "Friday Night Lights" will arrive for its third season not on NBC, but DirecTV (to be repeated by NBC in January). And Starz is venturing into original series drama with a TV adaptation of the Oscar-winning film "Crash."
It may not be hard for these shows to catch the viewer's eye. Cable " basic as well as premium " has lately earned a reputation for launching scripted shows that stick.
Broadcast series, which require a larger audience and struggle to attract it, seem to hang on for dear life. Why should things be different this year for the broadcast networks, whose fall crop, thus far, is generating buzz more akin to crickets chirping?
The most hotly anticipated series is "Fringe," Fox's paranormal thriller from J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Alias"). A preliminary version of its 90-minute pilot was not only screened for critics early in June, but also could be downloaded by viewers from a self-described Internet fan site.
As for most of the other new shows, the message for viewers seems to echo a car that came and went long ago: You'll see.