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Summer TV fails to excite viewers

Robert Bianco USA Today

For TV, it has been a long, cold summer.

The chill hasn’t been for lack of trying. Through June and July, broadcast and cable networks generated a blizzard of premieres.

Yet combined, they’ve created only one true blockbuster: ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

Granted, getting even one hit of that size is no small accomplishment. But while “Dancing” was huge while it lasted, it lasted only six weeks, and there’s been precious little to sustain viewers’ interest since it exited in July.

What’s missing are longer-running, midlevel hits like “Amazing Race” and “Simple Life,” which were top 10 performers last August.

Instead, this year we’ve been treated to a dismal array of reality shows that either start well and then fade, such as Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” or start badly and vanish, such as Fox’s “Princes of Malibu” and NBC’s “The Law Firm.”

And, of course, there’s ABC’s controversial “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” which didn’t start at all. The never-aired game show allowed a group of white Texas suburbanites to sort through various minorities to pick their new neighbors.

Nor has reality provided the only disappointments. Fox failed with “The Inside,” a dark drama that went dark after a handful of episodes.

ABC flopped with “Empire,” a huge project that was perceived as a desperate summer dump. And to make matters worse, the network bungled the repeat run of “Lost,” chasing viewers away by skipping episodes.

In other summers, you could have turned to HBO for relief. But this year, the cable network crashed with “The Comeback.” And it lessened whatever momentum it might have gotten out of the final season of “Six Feet Under” by starting the so-over “Under” on Monday before moving it back to Sunday.

Things on TV are never all bright or all bleak. On the reality front, WB’s “Beauty and the Geek,” with its unlikely partnership between dumb-but-pretty girls and smart-but-klutzy guys, was a breath of fresh air. Wisely, it didn’t ask us to believe these people would find love, just that they could find common ground.

TNT’s “The Closer” – an old-fashioned procedural built around an interesting character and a fabulous actress, Kyra Sedgwick – may not be a blockbuster, but its 6 million viewers have put it on top of the cable ratings.

And you have to give FX credit for the Iraqi war drama “Over There,” a wonderful series that probably was ill-timed.

So what went wrong? For starters, too many networks gave us too much of the same thing, as everyone from ABC to VH1 clogged the airwaves with variations on “The Apprentice” and “The Osbournes.” On some nights, it seemed as if every camera that wasn’t recording the faux life of some C-list celebrity was helping some fame-seeking contestant compete for a job.

And increasingly, the prevalent tone among reality shows is one of ugly, exaggerated, often falsified conflict. From Gordon Ramsay screaming at his would-be employees in Fox’s accurately named “Hell’s Kitchen” to the misguided, exploited children screaming at each other in ABC’s repulsively named “Brat Camp,” the genre seems intent on setting as many people at as many throats as possible.

To be fair, we all may have been a little bit spoiled by success. In June, we had just come away from a wonderful season, climaxed by the much-discussed finales of “24,” “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “American Idol.”

So we’ll make the networks a deal. You don’t have to be hot next summer. Just try not to freeze us out.

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