By Paul Thomasch
NEW YORK (Reuters) - American television audiences are bound to experience a bit of deja vu this coming season.
As ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC previewed more than three dozen new TV shows this week, they sought to convince advertisers that they could offer better, fresher programs than the crop they introduced a year ago, which produced flops such as "Undercovers," Off the Map" and "Lonestar."
They may succeed, but it won't be the result of any departure from tried and true formulas. Few of the dramas, sitcoms and reality shows introduced for the coming season -- from the brief clips and descriptions provided -- appear all that much different than what audiences have come to expect from prime-time TV.
Consider Fox's "The X-Factor," one of most anticipated new programs for 2011-12. A talent show that will air twice a week, "The X Factor" features four judges, including Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, offering up advice, encouragement and nastiness to contestants with dreams of becoming the next musical sensation. Plenty of tears and hugs are sure to be included.
"It's like 'American Idol' meets a mirror," comedian Jimmy Kimmel joked this week at a presentation by rival broadcast network ABC. "I think this is the best idea of 2002."
Or take a look at "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club," two other shows unveiled at the "upfront" presentation, so called because the shows are introduced and advertising time is sold ahead of the season. This year, ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS stand to collectively book $8.5 billion to $9 billion in commitments.
Both "Pan Am," on ABC, and "The Playboy Club," on NBC, are workplace dramas set in the golden, glamorous 1960s, and the inspiration in hard to miss.
"Call it the 'Mad Men' effect," said Lisa Quan, director of audience analysis at MagnaGlobal, a media and research agency owned by Interpublic Group.
There are obvious differences: "Pan Am" revolves around an airliner, "The Playboy Club" is set in a nightclub and "Mad Men" takes place on Madison Avenue. It remains to be seen whether either new show can achieve the quality of "Mad Men."
But both ABC and NBC clearly would like to capitalize on the success of "Mad Men" and prove they, too, can portray the dazzling attitude and style of the early 60s.
"It's all about taking something familiar, something that works and putting a spin on it," said Brad Adgate, an analyst at advertising and marketing firm Horizon Media. "I think you want to put on something that's familiar enough for viewers that networks are comfortable, but something that offers something a little bit different."
LOOKING FOR "LOST"
Originality can pay big dividends, if it results in the next "Lost" or "Glee," and not everything offered up this year is formulaic. Fox, for instance, is rolling out Terra Nova, an ambitious science fiction drama from Steven Spielberg, and there will be a couple of shows based around fairly tales, "Once Upon a Time" on ABC and "Grimm" on NBC.
Still, TV executives have plenty of reason to stick with the familiar. The process of making a pilot -- something of a test-run for a program -- can cost $5 million, leaving little room in the budget for experimentation. Plus, finding new hits is tough enough without going out on a limb; only about a third of all new shows are renewed for a second season.
That doesn't keep the industry from coming under criticism for not trying hard enough to be original.
"We wanted to be derivative this year so that's why we picked up all those shows," NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt sarcastically replied when the issue was brought up on a press call. "You listed seven shows that you think are derivative. so do you want me to say I think they are original and thought-provoking and bold and original? Because I do."
Among other new, if not pioneering, programs coming this season are NBC's "Smash," which will contain the singing and dancing elements that have made "Glee" such a hit; NBC's "Prime Suspect," based on the popular British series which could be seen on PBS; Fox's animated "Napoleon Dynamite," based off the 2004 movie; and ABC's Charlie's Angels, an update of both a popular TV series and film.
There is also the usual menu of sitcoms featuring odd-couples, single parents, and young adults finding their way in big cities. This year's titles include "2 Broke Girls," "Suburgatory," "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" and "New Girl."
"Everyone once in a while someone will come up with a twist and make it look fresh," said MagnaGlobal's Quan. "We like to see them take chances, but just not with an entire schedule."
ABC is owned Walt Disney Co, CBS is owned by CBS Corp., Fox is a division of News Corp and NBC is controlled by Comcast Corp..
(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)