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Editorial: If You Build It, They Will (Still) Come

A handful of summers back, a group of network execs and the reporters who cover them gathered in a beautiful luxury suite at venerable Dodger Stadium. It was sunnier times for the Dodgers, the once-proud franchise that has sadly become a punch line in Southern California and around the country, with the beautifultones of Vin Scully’s voice and the swirling script on the players’ chests perhaps the only connections to the team’s wonderful past.

Ironically, the talk that glorious day—in between bites of chicken wings and sips of cold adult beverages—sounded a bit gloomy. A network exec turned to one reporter on this masthead and quietly said something along the lines of: “Every fall, we have always known the viewers will come back after the summer. This fall, for the first time, we’re a little worried.”

Indeed, the viewers did come back that fall. And the next, and the one that followed. And while perhaps slightly fewer viewers are coming back every fall to the initial primetime airings on the broadcast networks, from a macro perspective nothing has happened to disprove that big shows on big networks are still where viewers—and advertisers— turn first…or eventually, once they catch up via DVR, on demand, Hulu or anywhere and everywhere else.

And, not yet a month into the 2011 fall season, here we are again. If you dine on clichés, we offer this delightful snack for you: reports of the broadcast networks’ demise has been greatly exaggerated.

This season has once again delivered new shows that will last for years and new TV stars— or some just new to TV—that will be invited into our family rooms dozens and dozens of times. You may have enjoyed that dorky chick on Fox’s The New Girl or the Oscar and Felix feel of CBS’ TwoBroke Girls. Perhaps you love the chemistry of Will Arnett and Christina Applegate on NBC’s Up All Night, or are hoping ABC’s Pan Am can provide a smooth ride in the ratings. And—of course—Buffy herself is back in a two-for-one role on The CW’s Ringer.

There were also returning favorites with new faces—most notably, the huge ratings for Ashton Kutcher’s Two and a Half Men run, allowing CBS and Chuck Lorre to wash the last of the Charlie Sheen detritus from the bottoms of their shoes.

And there is plenty still on offer this fall, as Tim Allen’s return to television could be a welcome one for a certain demographic—not to mention for ABC.

But we’ve also been reminded that you have to work a little harder than ever to get people to turn up and tune in these days. Want to copy something else that’s already on television? What a wonderful recipe for failure that is. In fact, if a show could be described as (insert successful show title here) meets (insert another successful show title here), we’re betting you won’t ever be reading about its run in syndication in these pages. Perhaps that was the challenge with Fox’s The X Factor, which very well could still end up a big hit, but provided rival network execs with massive sighs of relief when it opened with non- Death Star numbers. The ratings could be because, from the outset, X Factor brought viewers visions of American Idol and The Voice.

And a reboot of a hit from decades past? That’s a tough task, as often much of the audience you are targeting either doesn’t remember or care enough about the original, as we have seen with shows such as Charlie’s Angels.

So again, it is easy to say that with video entertainment coming from so many places these days, the broadcast networks are like the dinosaurs of Terra Nova, unknowingly biding time until their sudden decimation. But much like the figures that drove Moneyball’s Billy Beane to almost household name status, it pays to rely on the numbers: the ratings and ad dollars are still there.

Broadcast networks are still the biggest game in town when it comes to entertainment on television, and they have proven it again this fall. The playing field may be more level than it used to be, but unlike what has become of the addled Los Angeles Dodgers, the broadcast nets still have plenty of game.