There are few combinations the networks hate more than the mix of scarcity with uncertainty.
The success of network broadcast television, after all, is based on a straightforward promise of abundance and certainty: the daily delivery of a lot of product on a dependable schedule. Quality counts when it comes to individual shows, but the industry as a whole is built on quantity.
That's why the writers' strike did so much damage to the networks: It broke that promise and sent viewers fleeing elsewhere. Worse, it may have damaged the networks' ability to win viewers back come fall, an impression networks no doubt hope to change with their presentations for TV writers at the Television Critics Association press tour, kicking off Tuesday.
There is another kicker: the threat of an actors' strike, now that the studios' contract with the biggest actors union has expired. When it comes to Hollywood negotiations, you never want to discount the willingness on both sides to allow stupidity, pride and greed to outweigh common sense. But there doesn't seem to be much will for another work stoppage, and the networks certainly aren't exuding that aura of blind panic that usually presages the arrival of really bad TV news.
The immediate concern is more mundane but just as worrisome. September is not that far away, and when it comes to new offerings -- the prime drivers of new-season buzz -- the networks are understocked and, in many cases, unprepared.
Last fall, the five networks introduced 22 new scripted series. This fall they'll have 14, the lowest number in recent memory. That might not matter so much if they were all gems, but we know the odds of that are slim and the risks of failure great, adding yet more pressure to a business already besieged by cable rivals and confused by Internet options.
You could argue it's better to do fewer shows, to concentrate your development money and energy on a handful of series that can be carefully nurtured and launched, the cable model pioneered by HBO. Whatever one thinks of that model (and it hasn't worked so well for HBO of late), it wasn't so much embraced by the networks this year as forced upon them. The strike crippled the normal pilot process, leaving fewer shows to choose from.
Just to make matters more complicated, they and we know a lot less about what they've chosen than we all normally would by this time of year. Most of the shows were picked up on a wish and a prayer, with the exception of NBC's Knight Rider, which was picked up on the hope that somehow a sow's ear of a movie will yield a less swinish series.
The state of fall preparedness varies: ABC, NBC and CW have shown critics nothing on their schedules, and may not have much to show anytime soon.
That may mean less, though, at ABC, which has only one new scripted series, "Life on Mars" -- a British revamp that has acquired that most feared of pre-fall monikers: "troubled."
Still, ABC is using the fall more to relaunch shows than launch them, delaying its other new shows until January while it tries to find (or refind) audiences for "Pushing Daisies," "Private Practice," "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Eli Stone."
In contrast, CBS will come closest to a traditional fall. It has provided preview copies of four of its five new fall shows, and after last year's aberrant group, they represent a welcome return to good old-fashioned CBS competence, led by a very funny sitcom in "Worst Week" and an entertaining, star-driven procedural for Simon Baker with "The Mentalist."
Like ABC, Fox is largely sitting out this fall, with only two new scripted shows on the schedule. One of them, however, is fall's most highly anticipated show: J.J. Abrams' sci-fi drama "Fringe." The pilot is being tweaked, but word from advance screenings has been extremely positive.
In a season where good news is scarce, you take whatever you can get.