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Archive for Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Idol’ silences the network competition

March 19, 2008

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Write a daily TV column and you get to see a lot. Or, in the case of tonight's network lineup, a little.

Given five networks airing 13 hours of prime-time programming, eight of those hours involve reality television, much of it forgettable.

NBC broadcasts no reality tonight but offers us three ways to watch "Law & Order." Like I said, I've been around awhile. Back in 2000, NBC served up a terrible teen comedy called "M.Y.O.B." starring a pre-"Gilmore Girl" Lauren Graham as the aunt to a surly runaway (Katharine Towne). The show's one good joke came at the expense of its network, when the brat complained that NBC showed nothing but "Law & Order." She was way ahead of her time.

Tonight's paucity of programming can be explained in several ways. Many shows are still weeks away from new, post-strike episodes. CBS has altered its schedule to make room for the NCAA basketball tournament, which begins tomorrow. And we're also entering the solemn stretch of Holy Week, a time when some have weightier matters than television on their minds.

But those arguments ignore the elephant in the room. "American Idol" (8 p.m., Fox) has simply scared away competition on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. CBS head Leslie Moonves said as much last week in published reports, when he called "Idol" a "monster" that is "tough to compete with." And that's particularly sad, since everything worth watching on the Wednesday results show of "Idol" takes place in the final 10 minutes.

Fox has certainly benefited from "Idol," but the long-term effects of this one show may not be good for it or for network TV in general. "Idol" resembles the Super Bowl in generating gargantuan ratings. But like the big game, it has almost no value in repeats. In many ways, each episode is as forgettable as it is popular. The residual star-making power of "Idol" is also open to question. Once Taylor Hicks and Jordin Sparks were anointed, they seemed to lose their allure.

Contrast their celebrity with the cable-driven phenomenon of "High School Musical" or the "Hannah Montana" craze. It's interesting to note that these fictional pop characters have more staying power and resonance with young fans than the "real" stars manufactured by "Idol." Kids watch an episode of "Idol" once but commit "Musical" to memory with repeat viewings.

In their desperate embrace of reality, the networks seem to be ceding the art of storytelling to cable. And that may be the most monstrous consequence of "Idol" worship.

Tonight's other highlights

¢ Damien Lewis ("Life") stars in the 2006 drama "The Situation" (7 p.m., Sundance), about a love triangle between a CIA operative, a journalist and an Iraqi photographer.

¢ A Seattle mother uproots her family so her son can get a basketball scholarship in Georgia on "Deserving Design" (8 p.m., HGTV).

¢ "American Greed" (8 p.m., CNBC) looks at the Tyco scandal.

¢ A fatal trip to the altar on "CSI: NY" (9 p.m., CBS).

¢ An artist may have been stoned to death by his critics on "Law & Order" (9 p.m., NBC). Hey, I draw the line at bad reviews.

¢ Marin suspects Jack's lovey-dovey ways on "Men in Trees" (9 p.m., ABC).

Cult choice

Members of a boating party fall into odd behavior after a friend disappears in director Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 drama "L'Avventura" (9 p.m., Sundance).

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