Nov 27, 2008

Entertainment - TV writers look to economy for cues to future shows

Sue Zeidler

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Working class men and women may soon steal Hollywood's spotlight from the not-so-desperate housewives of upscale Wisteria Lane as U.S. television writers consider how to appeal to viewers in tough economic times.

The buzz around Hollywood is that shows portraying over-the-top wealth like ABC's flashy "Dirty Sexy Money" are on their way out. Writers believe the time is again ripe for working class comedies like 1980s sitcom "Roseanne" and 1970s blockbuster "All in the Family."

"Many TV shows portray wealthy people and opulence, and I think these kinds of shows may have a problem with viewership. I think audiences want to see characters they can relate to," said Suzan Olson Davis, who has written for cop drama "Saving Grace." Davis said she is now working on a pilot program for a series about the "lower middle class."

Paul Kagan of media research firm PK said viewers will increasingly turn to gritty crime dramas like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," citing the wildly popular 1930s Depression-era radio classic "The Shadow," about a mysterious vigilante.

"During a time of great problems, people like to see problems solved," said Kagan. "That's why I think these crime mystery programs are so popular and will continue to be popular. Everything is always solved by the end of the hour."

Hollywood is fast approaching its "pilot season" early next year in which networks pick shows for the 2009/2010 season, and many writers see an ever-widening gap between the rarefied worlds in programs like "90210" and "Desperate Housewives," and the real world of failing banks and swelling unemployment.

"What is interesting about TV is that many of the characters are rich and white. We don't have any Roseanne Barrs or Archie Bunkers," said John Greene, executive producer of crime drama, "Law & Order: SVU."

"The next year is going to be interesting in terms of the development cycle and what we put on TV," he said.


One thing seems certain. Since the start of the TV season in September, glitzy reality TV contests seem to be on the wane. "Deal or No Deal" has seen viewers drop nearly 30 percent to about 8 million from last year, and "Dancing With the Stars" viewership was down about 9 percent before ending its current cycle last night.

"I think we've had it with watching people test their mettle against the elements. We've all had enough of that in the recent past," said media researcher Kagan, referring to the decline of reality TV fare. "In times of great conflict, people like to turn to fiction."

Moreover, writers expect hard times will mean fewer shows being made. The global economic crisis is already hurting advertising sales at many major TV networks and their parent media companies, including News Corp, CBS Corp, Viacom Inc and Disney.

Some experts believe the trend will be to produce tight, less-expensive drama and comedy as opposed to sprawling and more costly shows that require travel and technology.

"Audiences will have an appetite for entertainment that in some way resembles the real world in which they live," said Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, but he noted the change it will not occur in a total vacuum. "There still will be escapism on TV," he said.

(Reporting by Sue Zeidler; editing by Todd Eastham)

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