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Bianculli Review: Networks Snooze With 'November Sleeps'

Without question, the real-life drama of the 2008 presidential campaign was the riveting, can't-miss, gotta-discuss TV event of the year. Now, without that, what's left?

Sadly, not much. Blame the writers' strike if you want to, and changing times and a tougher economy if you need to. But as Election Fever subsides, how many special offerings is TV scheduling to lure viewers and keep them engaged and excited? Off the top of my head, I can think of 24.

Unfortunately, that's a title, not a total.

24: Redemption is a two-hour movie that will be presented by Fox on Nov. 23. It features a self-contained story that follows Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer as he tries to thwart an African dictator seeking to enslave and exploit children as soldiers.

I'm looking forward to seeing 24: Redemption, and not only because the storyline serves as a bridge between the previous 24 adventure and the new season, which begins in January. I'm also looking forward to it because it's the first fresh dose of Jack Bauer and 24 we've gotten, thanks to the writers' strike, since season six ended in May 2007. And finally, I'm looking forward to it because, during this season's November sweeps, it's one of the few truly special TV events.

Ratings sweeps months, especially November and February, used to be fierce battlegrounds for the broadcast networks. Theatrical movies butting heads. Made-for-TV miniseries and movies gobbling up hours of airtime and scores of eager viewers. Super-special episodes of regular series, rather than just super-sized. And yes, even important, ambitious documentary specials.

Ah, but that was then. The invention of the VCR all but eradicated the appeal of theatrical films decades ago, and the broadcast networks abdicated most made-for-TV movies and miniseries to cable years ago.

But in November 2008, let the record show, broadcast TV isn't even doing a good job of competing with cable in its core specialty, series television.

In November, I can admit to anticipating the origin stories of NBC's Heroes, and the returns of Lana and Kara on The CW's Smallville. But I have a fondness for comic-book series, and those border on guilty pleasures. For the regular pleasures, there's NBC's 30 Rock with Steve Martin, ABC's Pushing Daisies and Boston Legal with anything, and CBS's astounding stalwart 60 Minutes.

But the reality of the current situation is that the networks, having failed to generate lots of interest and awareness for their reduced lot of new fall series, basically have decided to punt. Fake it through November, sweeps or no sweeps, take a breather as usual in December, and save their best efforts, and biggest guns, for a January midseason restart.

That strategy makes sense for Fox, which has the juggernaut American Idol returning that month and a full season of 24, as well as the premiere of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse series starring Eliza Dushku. And it should work well for ABC, which has a new season of Lost coming in January, an event it's already begun promoting. But for NBC, CBS and The CW, the “second season” in the New Year may be as problematic as the first.

When it comes to big-ticket, big-event stuff, where is it? Reality-competition contests such as Survivor and The Amazing Race still lure me on CBS, but as much out of duty and curiosity as anticipation. ABC's Dancing With the Stars has lost its novelty, and only AmericanIdol, when it returns in January, can claim to have just as great a hold on the American imagination many seasons in. Otherwise, after a two-year campaign fight like the one we all just witnessed and endured, any reality-TV competition looks minor-league—and a lot less unpredictable and entertaining—by comparison.

The broadcast networks, by giving up on big TV events, have to rely on regular fare to keep viewers watching. And is Whoopi Goldberg, as a special guest star on ABC's Life on Mars, really that much of a boost?

This month, it looks as though in trying to make do with less, the broadcast networks are doing too little. In November, except for the 24 movie, the most special events, to me, are the Ricky Gervais HBO standup special on Nov. 15, and the finale of the brilliant FX series The Shield on Nov. 25. Two great offerings. Both on cable. Two absolute high points of the November sweeps.

Meanwhile, on broadcast TV, it ought to be known as the November Sleeps.