Every year around this time, you probably put down your trashy beach novels, toss your sandals in the closet, and flip the remote from the upper reaches of the dial back toward the lower digits for the start of a fresh television season. Perhaps you also pick up a copy of EW's Fall TV Preview issue -- yeah, kinda like the one you're holding right now -- to help you sift through the dozens of new series. But have you ever wondered what the Hollywood power players really think about the product they're pushing? We did. So we assembled a blue-ribbon panel of 33 top network execs, studio suits, and agents and asked them a series of questions about the broadcast television business. We granted them anonymity in exchange for cold, hard honesty about their rivals -- and themselves. What we got was a wealth of juicy information: From predictions of the next big hit (and bomb) to over- and underrated actors, no industry topic was too sacred for discussion.
WHAT IS THE BEST DRAMA ON NETWORK TV?
WINNER CSI (30%)
(TIE) WITHOUT A TRACE (12%);
JOAN OF ARCADIA (12%);
AND 24 (12%)
Behind the numbers We followed the evidence, which led us to this conclusion: CSI is TV's top-rated drama for good reason. ''It has an energy that Law & Order hasn't had for a few seasons,'' says an agent. ''It's the best combination of extremely good acting, very solid storytelling, and a great, energetic visual look.'' A network exec agrees: ''It's got a phenomenal cast. It's really smart. And it's gruesome.'' Behold the three-way tie for second place: CBS dramas Without a Trace and Joan of Arcadia (''a brilliant way of doing a new version of Touched by an Angel''), and Fox's 24. Others receiving multiple votes: NBC's The West Wing; CBS' Cold Case; ABC's NYPD Blue.
WHAT IS THE WORST DRAMA ON NETWORK TV?
WINNER NORTH SHORE (52%)
Behind the numbers Fox's Hawaiian hotel soap washed up in first place in this category, eliciting such dismissive responses as ''an embarrassment to the genre'' and ''can't even make it a guilty pleasure.'' As one studio exec sums up: ''It's so blatantly stupid that it almost deprives the viewer of the fun of watching something terrible.'' Fox's now-canceled courtroom drama The Jury was also declared a creative mistrial -- ''attempted to be quality and sucked,'' says an agent -- finishing a (distant) second place with 9 percent of the vote. Others receiving multiple votes: CBS's JAG, NBC's Las Vegas and Crossing Jordan.
WHO IS THE MOST UNDERRATED ACTOR ON NETWORK TV?
WINNER JASON BATEMAN (12%)
Behind the numbers He's come a long way since Silver Spoons, so the panel gives Jason Bateman props for his ''hilariously funny'' deadpan anchoring of Fox's Arrested Development ''I don't think he gets the credit for having grown into the terrific actor he is now,'' says a network exec. Meanwhile, his castmate Will Arnett, a.k.a. deluded illusionist Gob, conjured up 9 percent of the vote (''He's just a breath of fresh air in a very familiar world,'' says a studio exec) as did wacky Malcolm in the Middle pop Bryan Cranston, who ''has the ability to be broad without being unbelievable,'' notes a studio exec. Others receiving multiple votes: Everwood's Treat Williams, Without a Trace's Anthony LaPaglia, and Scrubs' John C. McGinley.