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Fast Track

11/03/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Tough Sweeps Decisions Await

November to make or break several rookie shows

Broadcast networks have given full-season orders to only five freshman shows, half the amount provided by this time last year. Instead, they've focused on making additional script commitments, hoping to keep shooting hiatuses to a minimum and writers invested in case additional episodes are ordered.

With sweeps under way, networks are forced to make hard decisions about whether to deliver back-nine episode orders to a spate of struggling new series. November is the make-or-break month for new fall shows, and the fates of ratings-challenged programs like ABC's The Nine and Six Degrees, NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Friday Night Lights, and CBS' The Class will be determined in the next few weeks.

The shows receiving the back-nine pickups are CBS' Jericho and Shark, ABC's Ugly Betty and Brothers & Sisters, and NBC's Heroes.

Even with a tough start, regular series programming this November accounts for at least 90% of primetime schedules, up from around 80% several years ago, according to network executives. The abundance of serialized shows and continuing shift from costly TV movies and miniseries contribute to the trend. Advertisers had long urged networks to drop stunt-heavy sweeps schedules, which failed to provide a true measure of ratings performance.

Momentum is the priority now. NBC timed the return of Medium to cripple ABC's Day Break, a replacement during Lost's 13-week hiatus. Both debut with expanded episodes at 9-11 p.m. ET Nov. 12. In future weeks, Day Break will also have to compete at 9 against CBS' sleeper hit Criminal Minds. Medium will later settle into its 10 p.m. Wednesday slot.

“The timing seems right in this case,” says Mitch Metcalf, NBC's executive VP of program planning and scheduling.

Fox, meanwhile, entered sweeps after October's low-rated baseball post-season, which hurt its ability to promote programs, including the low-rated return of The O.C. Although Fox lacked breakout rookie hits even prior to baseball, Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research, says Thursday-night lead-off comedy 'Til Death and Tuesday drama Standoff are exceeding expectations. Fox will likely not render a verdict now, he adds, choosing to wait until January, when its schedule kicks into high gear with the return of American Idol and 24.

CBS is looking to expand its strength in total viewers and close the narrow adults 18-49 demo gap with ABC, which is enjoying its longest 18-49 winning streak in nearly 30 years. NBC has set out to build on its 6% year-to-year increase in the demo with regular series programming (Sunday Night Football doubles its 18-49 performance). The third-place network was just four-tenths of a point out of first place entering sweeps, compared to nearly a point a year ago.

Hectic as it may be, NBC's Metcalf nonetheless finds November sweeps easier to get through than some other parts of the year. With the return of Idol on Fox and the departure of football from NBC, January's program reshuffling will “feel like April and May,” says Metcalf, when setting the network's fall schedule dominates his workday. —Jim Benson

Fox Sports To Test Delayed Pay-Per-View

Fox Sports Net (FSN) will test a one-day–delayed online pay-per-view strategy for an upcoming heavyweight boxing match featuring former champion Evander Holyfield.

The Holyfield-Fres Oquendo bout will air live Nov. 10 on TV via FSN's pay-per-view arm, Special Order Sports, for $44.95. The next day, Foxsports.com will make a replay of the fight available online to U.S. customers for the same price.

Says Brian Grey, senior VP/general manager of Fox Sports Interactive, “This Webcast, since it's a first for us, will be a great learning experience for Foxsports.com and FSN as we continue to get a better read on how sports fans want to consume video content online.” —Ben Grossman

Court TV Tries On Legal Briefs

Betting that shorter shows will keep viewers watching more, Court TV is developing a short-form programming block called Rapid Fire. The hour-long block, envisioned as four back-to-back 15-minute shows, is slated for late first quarter or early second quarter 2007.

The network is developing shows in the action and story genres with titles like “Mysterious Circumstances,” mysteries told from the medical examiner's point of view, and “Extreme Police Vehicles,” profiles of hard-core law enforcement vehicles. Court envisions scheduling the block once weekly to start and then building it into a strip if all goes well.

With short-form video sites like YouTube skyrocketing in popularity, Court is hoping the shorter shows will appeal to viewers' evolving media-consumption habits.

Says Marc Juris, Court general manager of programming and marketing, “We're reinventing and reengineering the way we tell stories to reflect how the audience is evolving.”

Juris declines to reveal production costs for the shorter shows but says their production values would be on par with longer-form shows. Rapid Fire, he says, is “a broadband programming model with the scale and reach of cable.”

Court is currently developing eight 15-minute shows for the block, which will carry the same commercial load as a 60-minute show, Juris says. The network is also looking to the block as an incubator for longer-series concepts, as well as for Web and mobile content. Court is just starting talks with advertisers on creative ways to integrate their products across each batch of shows. —Anne Becker

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