Pride Goeth Before a Fall Season

By FRAZIER MOORE (AP Television Writer)

NEW YORK (AP) - ``I'm po', but I'm proud.''

In years past, that was the catch phrase circulated by a chain of country-style restaurants. More recently, it's a creed the broadcast networks have embraced as their own.

Their audience continues to dwindle ... yet they insist they have a lock on the programming America wants ... even as they lament rising costs and plunging revenues ... despite robust ad sales ... while they persist in turning a buck wherever they can, pride be damned. The audience, too.

But pride goeth before a fall season. So however impoverished the networks may be feeling, at their ``upfront presentations'' for advertisers last week their claims for next season were, well, rich.

``Every year at this time I tell you I'm excited,'' said one exec at ABC's upfront. ``This time, I'm really excited!''

CBS President Leslie Moonves boasted a new ``bimodal'' strategy (nothing to fret over, Rev. Wildmon) to woo younger adults without alienating the network's older audience base.

And trumpeting his network's schedule as ``quality, smart, fun,'' NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa promised advertisers a premium demographic: ``If you were trying to reach a 25-year-old college-educated woman, only Bill Clinton could do it better!''

Even someone with Clinton's mastery of detail would be hard pressed to master next season's interchangeable titles. MSNBC's ``Time & Again'' will be joined by ABC's ``Once and Again'' and CBS' ``Now & Again.'' CBS already has ``Touched by an Angel'' and will add ``City of Angels,'' while the WB launches ``Angel'' and Fox premieres ``Dark Angel.''

But the titles only seem recycled. Certain series actually are.

A spinoff of NBC's long-running ``Law & Order,'' the new ``Law & Order: Special Victims Unit'' will air on NBC each Monday, then on cable's USA network a few days later with the same episode. Let NBC's Sassa dismiss cable as ``not in the same game'' with broadcast. This money-saving deal makes clear that not only are broadcast and cable in the same game, they sometimes play on the same team.

In an even more brazen repurposing tack, Fox will launch a variation on the ``Ally McBeal'' theme. ``Ally'' Lite will alchemize old, unused and fresh footage into a half-hour format that steers clear of lawyerly pursuits to dwell on the comedy in Ally's world.

This was the idea of David E. Kelley, who created the original ``Ally McBeal'' hour and a host of other series. He's a brilliant writer and, in his hands, ``Ally'' Junior might excel artistically, not just give Fox a ``new'' show on the cheap.

But if it clicks, brace yourself for a rash of series alter egos. Imagine ``X-Files: The Sitcom.'' Or ``drewsomething,'' a relationship drama starring Drew Carey as a sensitive male in search of love and understanding.

Whatever happens, you can bet the networks will own a piece. The prevailing programming trend isn't drama, animation or anything with teens. It's the networks' increased stake in the series they opt to put on the air.

In fact, CBS is listed as a producer of all six of its fall series. Could that have played any role in CBS' scheduling those shows, rather than other contenders in which the network would have had no financial interest?

The Big Four networks, which own all or part of more than half of the fall prime-time schedule, explain they're only protecting themselves. NBC owned not so much as a bedpan from its hit series ``ER'' when, in January 1998, the show's producers jacked the per-episode price to an unprecedented $13 million. NBC had no choice but to pay.

At the time, some observers felt that NBC gave away the store by agreeing to such a colossal sum. Not true. NBC still owns a store in the heart of Manhattan and, in fact, recently expanded it.

The store is now proudly billed as the NBC Experience - a somewhat grandiose use of the term and presumably not what Jimi Hendrix had in mind. But there you can experience paying $12 for a ``Profiler'' thermal mug or $28 for an ``ER'' scrub top. You can wash down your experience with NBC brand Bottled Water for $1.90 the half-liter. Turn on, tune in, drop a bundle!

Then come fall, new shows on NBC's airwaves means new tchotchkes on its shelves.

Is that what TV has come to? Po' viewers.

Elsewhere in television ...

HI-DEF FOOTBALL: The coming season of ``Monday Night Football'' will be broadcast live in high-definition television, ABC has announced. In partnership with Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Co., the network will also air Super Bowl XXXIV in HDTV from Atlanta on Jan. 20. The HDTV telecasts will be produced and transmitted independently of ABC's ``Monday Night Football'' on the traditional analog network and represent the first live, regularly scheduled HDTV sports event in prime time. To make the HDTV broadcasts possible, Panasonic will build and outfit a 720P HDTV mobile production truck, which will travel to all 17 ``Monday Night Football'' games, one wild-card playoff game and the Super Bowl.