You are witnessing the biggest coin toss in the history of the television industry.
On one side sits Jay Leno, right. There's little doubt the former Tonight Show host's entrance as NBC's 10 p.m. offering every weeknight is an all-in maneuver of biblical proportions for the peacock network. If it works, expect rivals to try something similar in a hurry, turning network TV into a haven of unscripted "reality" shows and variety hours.
On the other side sits ABC, which stepped up big this year with four new comedies on Wednesdays and the two best pilots of the fall season, FlashForward and Modern Family. If these well-made and expensive shows go down in a sea of good reviews — remember ABC's Pushing Daisies and Fox's Arrested Development? — will any network still pony up $3 million-plus per episode for quality television that will never pay for itself?
This is why the 2009-10 TV season feels like a pivotal moment, when cable and the networks might finally and substantially switch roles.
Years ago, a list of the most-watched network TV shows mirrored the roster of the best, as well-crafted series like Seinfeld, 60 Minutes and NYPD Blue scooped up Emmy Awards while notching massive viewership. Cable was where you went for cheapie unscripted shows, low- budget productions and music videos.
But in 2009 that balance has reversed itself. Sleek, scripted dramas like Mad Men and Burn Notice are succeeding in standard cable, while network TV is poised to fill its hours with The Biggest Loser, So You Think You Can Dance, Survivor, The Amazing Race and The Jay Leno Show.
"The idea is (NBC basically said), 'We are going to do this anyway — do you want the job?''' Leno said to TV critics this summer, admitting that his new show harks back to TV's earliest days with music, comedy skits and, quite possibly, commercials pitched on the set. "NBC tried scripted programming at 10 o'clock — Lipstick Jungle, Kidnapped, My Own Worst Enemy — hugely expensive shows. I thought they were OK, but they didn't catch on. So now you try something different."
But will that "something different" turn quality TV into just another cable niche?
Here are a few other trends to watch for this season:
Cougars, cougars everywhere: Thanks to TV's long production cycles, the fall is always filled with shows about stuff we were furiously talking about two years ago. In 2009, that means three new shows centered on middle-age female characters hooking up with younger guys, from Jenna Elfman's Accidentally on Purpose to Laura Leighton on The CW's Melrose Place reboot and Courteney Cox in Cougar Town.
It's a wonderful message for today's middle-age woman: If ladies as smoking hot as Elfman and Cox can't build a relationship with a man their own age, what chance do you have?
No more doctors in the house: What to do when some of TV's highest-rated shows are medical dramas but the audience won't choke down another House or Grey's Anatomy clone? Focus on everyone but run-of-the-mill doctors, including nurses (NBC's Mercy), paramedics (NBC's Trauma) and transplant surgeons (CBS's Three Rivers). All are varying degrees of OK but nothing I'm setting the TiVo for just yet.
Spinoffs, clones and reboots: It's easy to see why CBS created a West Coast version of one of its most popular shows in NCIS: Los Angeles, but new versions of Melrose Place, Witches of Eastwick and Family Guy spinoff The Cleveland Show are much less successful. At least CBS's transplant of Medium from NBC, featuring psychic Allison DuBois recovering from a brain tumor and coma that might have taken her abilities, seems to work.
What's coming back strong: The two-hour return of Fox's drama House on Sept. 21, featuring Andre Braugher as a strong-willed therapist who resists springing Hugh Laurie's Gregory House from a mental ward, pits two of TV's greatest thespians against each other. And they would take away my comic book fanboy membership card if I didn't root for Heroes, which returns Sept. 21 with Prison Break's Robert Knepper in the cast.
The best stuff is yet to come: Some of the coolest new pilots have been held back from debuting this month, including ABC's lavish remake of the classic sci-fi miniseries V (think a dash of Independence Day blended with Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and NBC's surprisingly great reimagining of Ron Howard's film Parenthood (delayed by the cancer diagnosis of star Maura Tierney, who dropped out of the show last week, it references the 20-year-old movie without copying it).
I'm still watching cable: Besides the ongoing slow reveal that is Mad Men's third season, Showtime comes back strong Sept. 27 with new episodes of Dexter featuring Miami's fave serial killer as a new father and John Lithgow as a new killer. And HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm features a sidesplitting reunion of the Seinfeld cast starting Sunday.
Even the unfortunately renamed Syfy channel has an ambitious, well-made reboot of its Stargate franchise, Stargate: Universe, on Oct. 2. Who needs Leno?
Diversity in TV programming might not always be a great thing: By itself, the Fox network has more new shows starring people of color than every network presented last season. But one look at two of the three shows Fox will present starring black characters — The Cleveland Show and Brothers, a sitcom with former NFL star Michael Strahan — are so mediocre you wind up wishing they hadn't bothered.
Here's hoping comic Wanda Sykes' new late-night show brings more quality when it debuts in November.