Is network television dead?

Rhimes, Bellasario, and Wolf

law and orderWith all of the streaming, cable, and other options of TV viewing, I’ve wondered if network television is dead. 2021 has brought three MORE hour-long spinoffs of established shows. And the majority of all of these programs are from the same production house.

At least, Young Sheldon (CBS, Fri, 8 pm ET) is a 30-minute comedy replacing Big Bang Theory on the schedule. I’ve never seen it, BTW.


Two or three years ago, I came across a survey of shows that started since 2015 that teens were watching. Much to my surprise, one of the popular selections was Grey’s Anatomy (ABC, Th 9 pm ET), a medical soap opera that started in 2005 by Shonda Rhimes. She’s had some other successful such as Scandal (2012-018), and How to Get Away with Murder (2014-2020), as well as the often terrible Grey’s spinoff. Private Practice (2007-2013).

For the next spinoff, she set Station 19 (ABC, Th 8 pm), a piece about firefighters, in Seattle, just like Grey’s. This allowed more opportunities for crossovers. For instance, Chandra Wilson as Dr. Miranda Bailey has appeared on Station 19 at least a dozen times. Dr. Bailey is married to Dr. Ben Warren, now a firefighter on Station 19, who’s appeared on Grey’s at least 30 times since his character moved from the hospital program.

My daughter began watching Station 19 on her own. Later she learned that Okieriete Onaodowan (Dean Miller) played Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in the original production of the Broadway musical Hamilton, which made her quite excited.

Naval Criminal Investigative Service

She discovered reruns of NCIS (CBS, M, 9 pm, 2003-). It is actually a spinoff of JAG (1995-2005). As the parent, I had to check out what the daughter was watching. It wouldn’t have been my first pick.

It was the vision of Donald P. Bellisario, who often has his protagonists as current or former members of the United States armed forces. Tom Selleck’s character in Magnum, P.I., Jan-Michael Vincent’s character in Airwolf; and Albert “Al” Calavicci in Quantum Leap are some examples.

There is also an NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS, F, 9 pm, 2009-) that my daughter has no interest in. Ditto with NCIS: New Orleans (2014-2021), which just left the CBS schedule. But now there’s an NCIS: Hawai’i (CBS, M, 10 pm, 2021-).

Dick Wolf

The rest of the shows are the aegis of Wolf Films. That is to say, Dick Wolf, the executive producer. The two FBI shows Tuesday nights on CBS, FBI (8 pm, 2018-) and FBI: Most Wanted (10 pm, 2020-) are joined in 2021 by FBI: International (9 pm, ET). “Elite agents of the FBI’s International division as they travel the world with the mission of protecting Americans wherever they may be.” I saw one episode of the eldest show.

Chicago owns NBC Wednesdays. Chicago Med (8 pm, 2015– ), Chicago Fire (9 pm, 2012- NBC), and Chicago P.D. (10 pm, 2014– ). At least once, the stories leaped from one show to the next.

But Wolf is best known for being the executive producer of the Law and Order franchise. The original ran from 1990-2010. I used to watch the Lenny Briscoe (the late Jerry Orbach) seasons. The quirky Criminal Intent (2001-2011) I’ve actually just discovered. There are a few more series.

Special Victims Unit (NBC, Th 9 pm, 1999-) is the longest-running scripted drama on television, surpassing Gunsmoke (1955-1975). The show became a personal issue a couple of summers ago, before COVID when my daughter was watching it at the family timeshare. Her parents had watched it with her at home, but others were less comfortable about her viewing it.

The sound effect

The newest entry in the brand is Organized Crime (NBC, Th 10 pm, 2021-). Despite starring a character who started on SVU, Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler, it has a very different feel. It does the famous Chung Chung sound effect exactly once per episode. Having watched it a few times because it crossed over with SVU, I now know that it is a vile program.

Characters are crossing over all of the time in the Wolf universe. And actors on one Wolf show will end up as a different character in another Wolf program. A discussion of those phenomena would be lengthy.

A Dick Wolf quote: “TV is not about ideas. It’s about execution. And writing and casting. That’s why most of TV drama’s biggest stars have been character actors, not romantic leads.” His shows, as well as some of the NCIS line, and Grey’s Anatomy, are constantly available in syndicated reruns, likely more profitable than the latest offering from Netflix.

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