Prime Time's New Reality
For fall, broadcast networks bend the rules of the game
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/22/2004 8:00:00 PM
The fall broadcast season is going to have network executives and viewers scrambling to figure out what's what, who's where and who's when.
NBC's starting its fall season right after the Olympics conclude at the end of August. That makes all those promos during the Games pay instant dividends, and NBC isn't wasting any time, launching Father of the Pride and Hawaii,with multiple runs in the days immediately following the closing ceremonies. NBC's also pushing Last Comic Standingearly, hoping to give it traction before it gets real competition on Tuesday nights.
Fox really isn't even having a premiere season, since baseball playoffs foul up September and October. Most of its shows won't arrive until November, and its most important launch month will be January, when most networks are starting their second season. The WB jump-started a few shows this summer. That's the way it is, as the networks embrace year-round programming. Broadcast networks feel cable's heat (see story, right), and programmers have to be cagier than ever.
On the next few pages, we take a look at the season that, in fits and starts, is about to commence.
Besides the fact that prime time is now loaded with reality series (they make up 22% of prime time's hours on the broadcast networks, up from 10% last fall), there's no other overarching trend. Two shows—Hawaii and ABC's Lost—seem too violent for 8 p.m. But there's no sign that the networks are running scared after a year of scrutiny by Washington morality cops.
Nielsen says the 2004-05 broadcast season begins Sept. 20, and ABC and CBS are sticking to that date. But every network is stunting one way or the other as they learn that reality shows either become sensations or exit faster than a Bachelorettewithout cleavage. The reality glut makes changing gears easy, and, given that popular reality shows go through the roof, keeping the reality shelf well stocked is good business.
CSI: NY is likely to hit big for CBS' Les Moonves, so it's business as usual—with a few twists. Survivor: Vanuatu will launch a week early on Thursday, Sept. 16, and the rest of the schedule will tumble out during the remainder of the month.
Contrast that with Fox. Its fall "season" launches consist of three reality shows—The Complex: Malibu on August 30, The Next Great Champ on Sept. 10 and Family Time on Sept. 7. Summer shows North Shore (with Fox alum Shannen Doherty joining the cast), Quintuplets and Method & Red will continue, while new seasons of Bernie Mac, Cops, America's Most Wanted and late-night MadTV start anew. But American Idol,on which Fox feasts, won't return until January.
The most compelling reality show is the one being played out in the networks' corporate offices, where "You're Fired!" isn't a gimmicky line—it's a fact of life.
Fox's Gail Berman is now running prime time without Sandy Grushow, and the network's viewers need something more than Idol to talk about.
At ABC, new programming head Steve McPherson would settle for just a couple hits, period, and the early buzz is that the Alphabet Network has some contenders.
At The WB, David Janollari is in and Jordan Levin is out, and missing in action are many of the teens that gave that youth-oriented network its trademark.
That's good news for UPN, where Dawn Ostroff's network seems to be in its most competitive position since its inception.
At NBC, new entertainment chief Kevin Reilly is in a tough spot. His network still has a shaky hold on the 18-49 crowd. Now all Reilly has to do is keep it that way without any Friends.
Then there are the facts of life beyond the control of any network chief. If things weren't tough enough, a contentious election underscores a nation divided. There's a lingering war in Iraq, and fearful Code Orange alerts rattle our nerves. If TV executives look frantic, they just may be reflecting life in a frightful, uncertain world.
But that's always the prime time game, even in the best of times. Carat Programming Group, a unit of the ad-buying giant, in a recent study, predicts one-third of the new shows on the network schedules will be gone by January. Based on past years, that may be an optimistic forecast.
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