Hearts and flowers

Feb 13, 2008 at 12:00 am

The wearisome, three-month-old Writers Guild of America strike against Hollywood possibly, hopefully, may be settled by the time you read this. (As any Detroiter who belongs to a union knows, there's many a squeal 'twixt the talks and the deal.) When the picket signs finally are laid to rest and those script wizards return to their laptops, prime-time TV will have changed forever. Or at least, for a very long time.

It's changed already. The networks have done a Herculean job trying to keep you interested without new episodes of your favorite series, tossing more reality and game shows on the air than ever. Those programs are cheaper to produce and — bad news for writers — you seem to be enjoying them. Already, two big-budget hours from last fall, Bionic Woman on NBC and The CW's Life Is Wild, appear to be out of production forevermore.

FOX's annual January savior, Kiefer Sutherland's 24, may not return until fall at the earliest, more likely January '09, and the network admits the future of Back to You, its smart newsroom sitcom and one of the season's most promising newcomers, is now in doubt. Even the shows that return after a long layoff will be hard-pressed to recapture their audience and creative magic.

Here's the latest word on the status of some of the networks' hottest series, with the understanding that any of this could change faster than Mitt Romney's campaign strategy:

New Episodes Expected by Spring: 30 Rock, Brothers & Sisters, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: NYI, Desperate Housewives, Criminal Minds, House, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother, My Name Is Earl, Grey's Anatomy, The Office, Private Practice, Ugly Betty.

No New Episodes Due Until Fall: Pushing Daisies, Chuck, Life, Moonlight, Dirty Sexy Money.

2-7 Pre-Strike Episodes Remain; Future Uncertain: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Bones, Scrubs, Reaper, Jericho, Samantha Who?, Prison Break.

Nobody Knows for Sure: Heroes, ER, Law & Order SVU (Note: All NBC series.

It's Looking Bleak: Women's Murder Club, Friday Night Lights.

Hunter Gets Captured by the Game: Not long ago, we profiled Dateline NBC "To Catch a Predator" correspondent Chris Hansen in this space and opined that the MSU grad and ex-Channel 4 and 7 street reporter has fashioned a pretty sweet network niche for himself. And he has. But in the spirit of balanced reporting, it must be noted that even the laudable work of bringing sexual deviants to justice can carry some perilous blowback.

During one of the show's sting operations in tiny Murphy, Texas, "Predator" snared an assistant county prosecutor named Louis Conradt Jr. He was to be charged with soliciting sex with a minor after he allegedly engaged in explicit online and phone conversations with an adult decoy posing as a 13-year-old boy. When Conradt abruptly cut off communications with the decoy, however, Hansen, the Dateline camera crew and police armed with an arrest warrant went to his home. The prosecutor shot himself dead rather than face prosecution. Following the suicide, the district attorney dropped charges against 23 other men who ventured into Dateline's dummy house and were suspected of being online sexual predators, reportedly for lack of evidence.

Now Conradt's sister has filed a $105 million lawsuit against NBC Universal, claiming Dateline and Hansen "steamrolled" the police into driving to her brother's house to arrest him after he failed to show up for his scheduled rendezvous. Esquire magazine published a long, condemnatory feature on the incident, further fueling the fire.

Regardless of the suit's outcome, the Conradt affair calls into sharp focus the blurring of the line between entertainment and law enforcement, a separation that seems to get fuzzier with each new "actuality" series on truTV. A verdict against NBC could endanger the future of the "Predator" franchise.

An NBC News spokesperson said the network cannot comment on pending litigation, but released this brief statement: "We believe the claims in the suit to be completely without merit and we are defending ourselves vigorously." As to the Esquire article, she added, "the notion that Chris Hansen or anyone at Dateline could 'control' or 'manipulate' the actions of law enforcement personnel is preposterous. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe Conradt was aware of Dateline's investigation."

In an on-air updating of the Texas situation on Dateline NBC, Hansen noted, "There have been prosecutions in every previous "To Catch a Predator" operation. More than 200 suspects from our reports have been indicted, and 120 have been convicted. … Dateline obtained a forensic police report that said Conradt's CDs, laptop computers and cell phone all contained pornographic material. Some included child pornography.

"Conradt's sister has filed a lawsuit claiming we were somehow responsible for her brother's death, a claim Dateline vigorously denies.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]