Calista Flockhart was almost a Desperate Housewife. So were Dana Delany, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Sharon Lawrence, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, ER‘s Alex Kingston, Boston Public‘s Jeri Ryan, and Roma Downey (seriously). Those two sentences pretty much squeeze the best juice out of Desperate Networks, Bill Carter’s 389-page tome about the inner workings of the TV industry over the past decade.
Carter, the New York Times writer who was such an effective raconteur of the Jay Leno-David Letterman battle to succeed Johnny Carson (The Late Shift, also made into a TV movie), set himself up for failure the moment he chose his new book’s premise. The title suggests a year-in-the-life treatment of the Big Four broadcasters — and 2004-05 was a bellwether, with the success of Housewives and Lost, the retirement of two nightly news anchors, and the passing of another. Instead, Carter rejects a strict narrative structure — any narrative structure, really — bouncing haphazardly from network to network. The prose is awfully purple: A change in power at Viacom has overtones of King Lear, and CBS’ decision to schedule CSI (”time was almost up”) takes on the urgency of Bruce Willis defusing a bomb just in time to save Bonnie Bedelia.
Unfortunately for Carter, the book’s natural denouement occurred after he’d finished writing — when the top ”mover and shaker” listed on the cover, Katie Couric, jumped to CBS. The result: Desperate Networks already plays like a rerun.