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Ellen Gray: Future focus: Here's what you can look forward to in the 2008-09 TV season

TO HEAR the broadcast networks tell it, there's plenty on television this summer. And if we're talking watching people fall off giant rubber balls on ABC's "Wipeout" or seeing canines compete on CBS to be named "America's Greatest Dog," they're right.

"Dirty Sexy Money" has been off ABC's schedule for a while.
"Dirty Sexy Money" has been off ABC's schedule for a while.Read more

TO HEAR the broadcast networks tell it, there's plenty on television this summer.

And if we're talking watching people fall off giant rubber balls on ABC's "Wipeout" or seeing canines compete on CBS to be named "America's Greatest Dog," they're right.

For those who'd rather be waterboarded than watch one more minute of "reality" TV, there are also cable's summer dramas, from TNT's "The Closer" to AMC's "Mad Men."

But despite flagging ratings, broadcast TV's still the big tent, the place where millions gather every season.

So to remind you that even in the darkest moments of ABC's "I Survived a Japanese Game Show," time is passing, here are a few things you can look forward to from the 2008-09 season:

* A less frantic fall.

Not long ago, it wasn't a fall TV season without three dozen or more new series jostling for attention against one another as well as returning favorites.

And while everyone involved seemed to agree it was a wasteful practice, with shows sometimes getting canceled before most people even knew they were on, not much was done about it.

Until this year, when an industry ravaged by a lengthy writers strike that left the spring pilot cupboards barer than usual decided that maybe not everything needed to premiere during a few short weeks in September and October. So a number of shows that once would have been ordered for fall have been pushed off until midseason.

Look for: About half the usual number of new network shows in September and October (a little more than half if you count the four Sunday shows from Media Rights Capital, which has taken over programming the night for the CW).

Handicapping the trend: There's a lot to be said for narrowing the focus at a time when viewers seem to have widened theirs beyond network TV. But there's also a danger that the season when millions of viewers have traditionally come back to their televisions might seem a little less special.

* Familiarity breeding content.

When it came to making out shopping lists for the new season, the goods already on the shelf - some of it not seen since the writers went on strike last fall - looked better than usual to some programmers, who decided to give a second, sometimes even a third, chance to shows whose ratings once might have targeted them for cancellation.

No, this didn't necessarily apply to CBS, which canceled "Moonlight" and axed "Jericho" a second time, and ABC did cancel "Men in Trees." But fans of NBC's "30 Rock" and ABC's "Pushing Daisies" have reason to give thanks.

Look for: Some of the promotion that once would have been reserved for new shows to go toward reintroducing some returning series.

"We're going to spend about the same amount of money" on promotion," said ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson, "the difference being in the past, you know, we've had whole nights that we've had to launch that were brand new . . . We're going to spend some money on our returning hits."

Handicapping the trend: Given how long it's been since viewers have seen an episode of shows like ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" or NBC's "Life," will those who loved them the first time even remember them? And will those who didn't be willing to give them a second chance?

* A flatter world.

OK, maybe Thomas Friedman wasn't specifically talking about television when he wrote about the global economy in "The World Is Flat."

But in TV, too, the borders are blurring.

With Ben Silverman, a producer who made his reputation buying shows from other countries and repackaging them for American audiences, now entertainment co-chairman of NBC, it's no surprise that one of his early picks is "Kath & Kim," an Australian sitcom about a mother and daughter that's being adapted for U.S. audiences by South Philadelphia's Michelle Nader.

He's also bucking tradition by scheduling two new dramas, "Merlin," a co-production of the BBC, and "The Listener," a Canadian series, that will first air in their own countries.

Look for: Others to follow Silverman's lead. Two of CBS' new series - the sitcom "Worst Week" and the drama "The Eleventh Hour" - are adaptations of British shows some viewers might have caught on BBC America, while a third, "The Ex List," is based on a show from Israel.

ABC, meanwhile, is remaking the BBC drama "Life on Mars."

Handicapping the trend: Though U.S. audiences have a history of rejecting British remakes ("Men Behaving Badly" and "Coupling" come to mind), NBC's "The Office," which Silverman helped bring here, has exceeded the expectations of many fans of the British version. And ABC's "Ugly Betty" - an adaptation of a Colombian telenovela that was another Silverman project - appears to have settled in just fine. On the other hand, NBC's plans to spin a series out of "The Office" for midseason might be pushing things.

* The drama to continue (punctuated by only an occasional comedy).

We keep looking for signs of a comedy comeback, and there are a few, including CBS' decision to open a new night of comedy on Wednesdays, when it will pair "The New Adventures of Old Christine" with the Jay Mohr sitcom "Project Gary."

And with the dream lead-in of "Dancing With the Stars," "Samantha Who?" managed not to trip over its feet and will be back next season.

But dramas - and "reality" shows - will continue to dominate the fall lineup, with Fox, for instance, putting most of its muscle behind the spooky J.J. Abrams drama "Fringe," which is scheduled on Tuesdays after "House."

Look for: ABC's "According to Jim" to return at some point, just to prove that some comedies can withstand anything.

Handicapping the trend: I'm a drama junkie, but even I think that my TV's demanding too much of a commitment these days and that we could all use a few more laughs. But until some sitcom really breaks out, the way "Seinfeld" and "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" did - at which point we'll immediately see a dozen imitators - expect the nights to be dark.

* A new mantra: midseason.

Pilot development may have lagged this spring, thanks to the writers strike and continued fears of an actors strike - the Screen Actors Guild's contract is up June 30 - but most networks expect to have more midseason options than usual.

Look for: A "second season" starting in January that might really feel like one. Among the shows waiting for winter: Fox's "Dollhouse," from producer Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly"), and a bloody little murder mystery for CBS, "Harper's Island."

Handicapping the trend: Midseason, traditionally a time when HBO and some other cable networks like to make some noise (and Fox comes roaring back with "American Idol" and "24") could be the season next year. *

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