NEW YORK - Jimmy Kimmel knows how to deliver an industry joke with some sting, as he proved to advertisers getting a first look at ABC's fall schedule last week.
"Here at ABC we are very excited about both of our new shows," Kimmel said to knowing laughs.
Both. One is a game show produced by Ashton Kutcher, the other an adaptation of a series done by the BBC. It's hardly a burst of creativity from a network that proudly introduced eight new series last fall.
The fall schedules rolled out with limited fanfare provided evidence of how deeply network television was hurt by this winter's writers strike. The pain from those wounds will linger into next season precisely when the networks — already hemorrhaging viewers — can least afford it.
Premiere time in September was once like a week of Christmas mornings for fans of television, and it's steadily becoming less special.
"The viewers are going to be going away for the summer, and the networks can't just presume that they are coming back," said David Bianculli, a veteran television critic who operates TVWorthWatching.com.
Judging by what he's seen, Bianculli said he's looking forward only to two new series next season, both on Fox and one not debuting until January 2009.
ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW have collectively promised 16 new shows in the fall. Last fall, those five networks debuted 27. Take CBS and the CW — with the same, very traditional corporate owners — out of the mix, and the decline is 18 to eight.
The "new" fare includes remakes of "Beverly Hills 90210" (on the CW) and "Knight Rider" (on NBC). There are a handful of ideas taken from formats that have already succeeded elsewhere in the world (including CBS' "The Ex List," from Israel, and NBC's "Kath & Kim," from Australia). There are big-name producers you've heard from before (Jerry Bruckheimer, David E. Kelley, J.J. Abrams).
Fantasy continues to be hot, too, and several series require a willing suspension of disbelief. ABC expects you to follow a detective transported to the 1970s by a car crash; CBS a woman who has turned her life upside down because of a psychic's prediction.
Television executives have always been shy about seeking bold new ideas, and this year "people are hedging their bets a little more," Bianculli said.
CBS is particularly conservative, especially since the network took some real chances last year with a musical and gothic thriller that failed to last.
The strike fell during the networks' development season, when ideas are incubated. ABC and Fox executives both admitted that really hurt, and forced cutbacks. While its rivals occasionally ordered series based only on scripts or a quick 20-minute film about an idea, it was a route ABC entertainment President Stephen McPherson refused to follow.
He won't commit to a series unless episodes have been cast and written and a pilot is filmed. He likened it to an automaker not building prototype new models.
"If I was running a car company and I was going to make 750,000 cars with just a sketch ... it doesn't make sense," he said.
His CBS counterpart Nina Tassler said that if you've been in the business long enough, sometimes a sketch is all you need. Tassler said her CBS team spent much of the strike looking at programs from around the world for ideas, something they have rarely done.
Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment president, said that some of the ideas Fox didn't have time to develop this past season will be pushed forward a year, giving the network a leg up on the 2009-10 season.
That doesn't help much for September 2008, however.
The opening of a fall season has been slowly declining in importance, anyway, as a launching pad for new programs. "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" proved in 2004 it can be done, but no comparable hits have started in the fall since then. Three of the five most popular shows last week — "American Idol," ''Dancing With the Stars" and "Grey's Anatomy" — each started in another season.
Executives are concerned that it's too easy for a new show to get lost in September when there are so many other choices.
Fans will still anticipate new episodes of existing series when they start up in the fall, but it's becoming less of an event. A survey of more than 1,000 Americans released this week by Entertainment Weekly found that 59 percent of people say they no longer look forward to the new fall season the way they used to.
It was another ominous sign when Michael Nathanson, an analyst for the Wall Street firm Bernstein Research, wrote earlier this month about the lack of clients and reporters calling him about the networks' programming presentations.
Except for Fox, the broadcasters dramatically scaled those back, a reflection of the strike and the economy. A young advertising executive asked someone after CBS' Carnegie Hall meeting whether the party would be at Tavern on the Green, as usual. No, there would be no party, he was told. The man didn't believe it, and took out his cell phone to check with someone else.
But it was true.
"Let's face it," Fox entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori said from the stage during his network's presentation, "the broadcast television industry needs a jolt."
There was little evidence of a jolt this past week.