Fall TV this year rolls in amid the fog of the writers’ and actors’ strikes. The networks have been slow to commit to their schedules, still rejiggering their lineups for September and beyond. Cable outlets have been bumping the release dates of in-the-can shows, lest they wither without promotion by their stars, an activity prohibited by the actors’ guild during the strike. The streaming archives beckon.
At first glance the fall network schedules suggest the work stoppages have had an impact: They are overstuffed with reality competitions and game shows, whose employees generally work under different contracts from those of the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA.
ABC’s Wednesday prime-time lineup consists of “Celebrity Jeopardy!” followed by “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune” followed by “The $100,000 Pyramid.” On Thursdays CBS added a new competition called “Buddy Games” to go along with the long-running “Big Brother” and another installment of “The Challenge: USA.” On Fox, celebrities endure military training on Mondays (“Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test”), guess songs on Tuesdays (“Celebrity Name That Tune”) and croon in ridiculous outfits on Wednesdays (“The Masked Singer”).
However, aside from “Buddy Games,” essentially summer camp competitions for groups of adult friends, none of the shows in the previous paragraph are new — the networks have been churning out unscripted prime-time shows by the bushel for years. Overall, their lineups are eerily steady, more like an extended summer season of familiar titles and reruns than an uncharacteristically barren fall slate.
So the schedules end up reflecting the strikes not because they look radically different, but because their numbing sameness is a reminder of the issues that led to the work stoppages — that everything is simply “content,” and the only kind of value is monetary value.
What are we to assume about the studios’ feelings toward the people who make television when their offerings suggest apathy regarding the people who watch it? Or perhaps these lackluster lineups are the product of corporate strategy, now that seemingly all of TV has been consolidated within a few media megaliths that are transforming how shows get made and creators get paid.
It is little wonder ABC is happy to offer up singing contests and celebs spinning the Wheel when Disney, its owner, would like you to subscribe to Hulu and Disney+ for scripted family and prestige shows along with franchise fare like the Marvel and “Star Wars” series. CBS? Oh, you mean the broadcast home of the Viacom empire, where you can also watch repeats of Paramount+ shows like “FBI True” and “Yellowstone?”
(This shift isn’t limited to networks, of course. Think not of HBO as a refined tastemaker in a separate TV universe from home-makeover shows and insects pulled from people’s bodies — imagine instead an array of treasures and garbage and the “Friends” catalog all piled up under one meaningless heading: Max.)
This is hardly the first fall to be full of reality shows. ABC was always going to air another season of “Dancing With the Stars” (this will be its 32nd); NBC was always going to air “The Voice” (Season 24); CBS was always going to air “Survivor” (45) and “The Amazing Race” (35); and Fox has slotted “Hell’s Kitchen” (22) in its fall line-up plenty of times. Even though the CW is largely ceding any claim to original programming, opting instead to fill out its fall schedule with an array of existing foreign shows, it is still airing new episodes of its version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” which begins its 12th season in November.
NBC is spreading out the reruns of the “Law & Order” and “Chicago” franchises, its reliance on the Dick Wolf universe a core programming strategy for much of the past three decades. ABC will keep “America’s Funniest Home Videos” alive until the sun eats the earth. Fox’s animated comedies are shelf stable for the time being.
Even most of the new fare colors comfortably inside the lines. ABC’s “Golden Bachelor” is “The Bachelor” with a 71-year-old widower at its center. NBC has two scripted dramas: “The Irrational” and “Found,” each a spin on the crime procedural, lest any American go more than a few minutes without seeing someone ducking under yellow crime-scene tape. Fox has a new cartoon from Dan Harmon (“Krapopolis”), his third current animated series. CBS is airing the original British version of “Ghosts” as a companion to reruns of its American version — an inspired choice in its way, but also a simple one, given the adaptation’s success.
Otherwise, our newcomers include the already mentioned “Buddy Games,” hosted and executive produced by Josh Duhamel, who previously made two movies based on the same concept, and two CBS game shows: “Lotería Loca,” hosted by Jaime Camil, a TV version of the bingo-style game lotería; and “Raid the Cage,” an adaptation of an Israeli show that involves people grabbing prizes out of a cage. Lastly, there is Fox’s “Snake Oil,” a hybrid of “Shark Tank” and “Bullsh*t,” hosted by David Spade.
To be fair, the networks have been counted out many times before, and shows like ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” which scored eight Emmy nominations in July, and “Ghosts” demonstrate that there is still plenty of fun and specialness to be had in a broadcast format. Those and other sitcoms and procedurals could be back with new episodes in the new year. (Or perhaps even earlier, if the strikes somehow get resolved soon.) But such sparks are rare.
Way back in the early 2000s, premium cable shows began to mostly outshine network ones and plenty of streaming series have since done the same — winning awards, amassing cachet, draining our wallets. Fair enough! After a while, it seemed like the networks were barely putting up a fight; cop shows and singing competitions as far as the eye can see, plus “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Simpsons.”
But now the new flashy ride at the fair is not a pricier, fancier platform; it’s free, ad-supported streaming television. The increasing popularity of these platforms, like the Roku Channel, Tubi, Pluto and Amazon’s Freevee, suggests that viewers want to recreate the basic-cable experience of yesteryear with marathons of classics, but they also want fun and interesting original shows (Freevee’s “Jury Duty” got four Emmy nominations this year, including for best comedy) and are happy to tolerate ads. That’s a network television audience.
That also means networks could occupy a different space in the public imagination — the main floor isn’t the penthouse, but hey, it’s not the garden unit or the storage basement either. Mass-appeal comedies and long-season dramas still have value in the streaming era, perhaps more now than ever before as a way to lure parents and children away from their individual screens.
Maybe a fall of game shows will eventually alienate viewers and consequently, convince program executives of the worth of actual creativity. Maybe it will lead to more adventurous attitudes in Hollywood when the strikes eventually end. Maybe the next time the networks have to put things on hold, we will actually feel the loss.