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What Networks Need This Fall

A night-by-night look at strengths and gaps 5/01/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

In two weeks, the broadcast networks will begin parading their new schedules in front of advertisers. But between now and May 16, when NBC starts the process by unveiling its prime time, frazzled network executives will look at dozens of pilots and decide the fate of lots of iffy series they already have on-air.

Looking at what worked and what didn’t over this past season can provide some indication of what’s likely to come. But there are always last-minute surprises.

It’s likely that two battlefield nights will be Monday and Thursday. On Monday, without Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS is vulnerable. On Thursday, where NBC’s comedy lineup is limping, ABC sees an opportunity.

As always, several critically recognized series are “on the bubble” going into the upfronts, including Arrested Development, Judging Amy, Alias, Joan of Arcadia and The Office.

Fox, meanwhile, will try to create a more stable schedule prior to baseball in October.

The WB will have to deal with problems on Sunday and Thursday nights, as well as addressing what goes into the 8:30 p.m. slot on Friday. Otherwise, it looks to be in good shape.

Urban-focused UPN, which has already picked up America’s Next Top Model, Veronica Mars and WWF Smackdown, will have to decide whether to pick up Kevin Hill Wednesdays at 9. Depending on the strength of its comedy development, all of its Monday-night comedies could come under scrutiny.

Here’s a look at the how each night of prime time shapes up:

Sunday

ABC: Mess with success? Not likely. Desperate Housewives has turned the night into a romp, and midseason medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, which was to stick around for only four weeks, has been a monster hit at 10 p.m. ABC has decided to keep it in the slot forrmerly occupied by David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal for the rest of the season.

ABC could decide to move Boston or Grey’s to a new night—launching a new series after Housewives—but the betting money is on Boston Legal’s moving. Kelley’s series could really flourish in a different time period. The network has already given it a full-season pickup for 2005-06, and, with this season’s unused episodes, it will have the unusually large number, 27, ready for fall.

ABC will also have to look at the demo performance of the two time-period contestants. Grey’s Anatomy has proved much more compatible demographically with Housewives. It’s a hit with viewers of all ages (up 180% versus the year-ago
time period in adults 25-54)—the perfect lead-in for the affiliates’ late local newscasts.

CBS: CBS is unlikely to make any major changes on the night this fall. Although the CBS Sunday Movie franchise is struggling, so are most shows airing in the 9 p.m. time period.

Fox: What happens Sunday nights next season will depend in large part on what the ratings look like for the May 1 premieres of The Family Guy (returning to the schedule after enjoying DVD success) and American Dad.

A decision on the fate of the critically acclaimed Arrested Development won’t be easy. Arrested at 8:30 inherited the highest-rated lead-in on the Sunday-night schedule, The Simpsons, yet it has lost roughly a third of those viewers throughout the season. If the show does come back, it would likely turn up elsewhere on the schedule.

NBC: In 2006, NBC will become the new home of Sunday-night football; in the meantime, it has its hands full devising a short-term plan to get back into the game this fall on TV’s most highly viewed night. American Dreams and The Contender have languished in the 8 p.m. slot this season, while 10 p.m. entry Crossing Jordan has been picked apart by ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.

Despite facing erosion this season in the 9 p.m. death slot against those pesky Housewives, Law & Order: Criminal Intent should stay on the docket.

Monday

ABC: Expect programmers to aggressively tackle this night, where ABC will need to start laying the foundation for schedule stability before handing off Monday Night Football to ESPN in 2006. Even with the schedule difficulties presented by football, ABC may also be looking for opportunities to tackle NBC’s faltering Fear Factor with comedies at 8 p.m. Otherwise, there are reports that the bloom is off the Bachelor/Bachelorette reality franchise.

CBS: The sharks are circling. Without Raymond, CBS is shifting Two and a Half Men into the 9 p.m. slot. But 8:00 lead-off sitcom Still Standing is off in key demos, and Listen Up at 8:30 will probably be stepping off the schedule. CBS believes it has built a comedy franchise with Two and a Half Men to replace Raymond, but Two is sandwiched between Raymond and CSI: Miami. Next year, it will have to stand on its own.

Fox: Its Monday was helped this season by 8 p.m. entrants Trading Spouses and the renewed Nanny 911. Critical favorite 24 has a good chance of coming back at 9 p.m.

NBC: The network earned some late-season traction with the supernatural lift provided by Medium at 10 p.m., one of the few scripted series to work right out of the gate this season. But Fear Factor has lost about a quarter of its 8 p.m. audience this season. It is a certainty for renewal, but NBC would like a show there that is trending up, not down.

The network also may be eyeing comedy opportunities. Try this scenario: NBC takes the bold step of shifting Thursday-night sitcoms Joey or Will & Grace (which is likely in its final season) to Mondays, hoping to establish a safe hammock for a new comedy at 8:30.

Tuesday

ABC: There hasn’t been much to laugh at since Fox smash American Idol returned in January. ABC’s competing sitcoms (My Wife and Kids and George Lopez ) tanked. Even 9 p.m. shows are not safe on Idol Tuesdays, with According to Jim suffering from the amazingly Amazing Race on CBS.

CBS: The Amazing Race at 9 p.m. has been just that this season, exploding in popularity and boosting its ratings in the time period by 100% and 132%, respectively, for its sixth and seventh editions. It garnered a record-breaking number of viewers last week.

The rest of the news is mixed for CBS on the night. NCIS is okay at 8, but Judging Amy at 10 has been losing too much of its Amazing lead-in.

Fox: With House exploding this season behind the unstoppable American Idol, Fox should keep it in its 9 p.m. time period this fall and air reruns all summer to attract new viewers. Chances are the network will seek out a reality show or drama for the 8 p.m. time period this fall.

NBC: It has already announced the return of reality series The Biggest Loser at 8 p.m. from August to November. But NBC has really been out of the game here since Idol returned in January. Having basically abandoned the 8 p.m. hour, it saw its comedies airing from 9 to 10 suffer, including Scrubs and, more recently, midseason entries The Office and Committed.

NBC is said to be still hopeful about The Office, so it could return in the fall or midseason, perhaps in a different time period. NBC is noncommittal about Committed. At 10, strong performer Law &Order: SVU is safe.

Wednesday

ABC: The network wants bigger things on Wednesday to capitalize on its 8 p.m. wonder, Lost. Alias and Wife Swap could stay, but there’s a feeling they’ve both lost steam.

CBS: King of Queens is hurting against Idol but not enough to make it go away. Questions, however, have been raised about the future of the two shows surrounding it: 60 Minutes Wednesday is now tainted (and has bad ratings, too), and comedy Yes, Dear—brought back at midseason in the post-King 9:30 slot—has been squandering its lead-in audience.

Fox: There are lots of alternatives available. The network will likely bring back That ’70s Show to lead off the night, then decide on midseason entry Life on a Stick (which perked up last week following an appearance behind ’70s Show). Count on The Simple Life or Fox’s comedy-development slate to round out the rest of the night.

NBC: The network needs to shore up its weak 8-9 p.m. block, where it has been unable to gain much traction with anything, including a version of Dateline NBC.

At 9, expect The West Wing, which has struggled with a weak lead-in this season while doing well creatively, to move to a new night in what could be its last hurrah. New series Revelations won’t fit there because it will need time to generate new episodes. So what does NBC do with the hour? Maybe move the Donald Trump version of The Apprentice from 9 p.m. Thursday to the same hour a day earlier, with the new, Martha Stewart-fronted Apprentice on Thursday. ER will still be there.

Thursday

ABC: Schedule-setters will likely see Thursday as a blank slate. If comedy development pans out, programmers could see a huge opportunity now that NBC’s Must-See Thursdays are now pretty miss-able. At 9 p.m. at least, ABC has a chance to develop an unchallenged comedy block. Don’t expect Jake in Progress back, and ABC News’ Primetime Live is hurting at 10.

CBS: What’s there to say? From Survivor to CSI and Without a Trace, CBS rocks.

Fox: The O.C. will surely be back, having performed well at 8 against tough competition. It shot up more than 70% in adults 18-49 over last year’s occupant, Tru Calling, which is now struggling at 9.

NBC: It could move Joey or Will & Grace to give familiarity to another comedy night but doing that could damage those sitcoms, which seem fragile where they are. Much of NBC’s Thursday future rests on the strength of its comedy-development slate. The list includes All in Goody’s, a pilot set in a coffee shop in the North End of Boston that counts powerful Law & Order impresario Dick Wolf among its producers. But with the Winter Olympics, NBC gets a huge promotional platform to pump some promising sitcoms launching in the spring.

Friday

ABC: None of ABC’s comedies this night have done great. The two with the best hope for renewal are 8 Simple Rules and Less Than Perfect, if only so they can anchor new entrants.

CBS: Joan of Arcadia will need a miracle to save it. Meanwhile, the long-running JAG ended its tour of duty April 29. But Numb3rs is a surprise hit at 10.

Fox:. Depending on whether Bernie Mac returns—the star has a respiratory disease—Fox could opt for more comedies at 8 followed by a drama, or a two-hour laugh block.

NBC: The network has done decently with Dateline, Third Watch and L&O: Trial by Jury. But Third Watch ends this week, which gives NBC an opportunity to incubate a new series before moving it to a more competitive time period (think Raymond, which started on Fridays).

Saturday

ABC, CBS, NBC: Expect more of the same on the week’s lowest-rated night: movies and clever packaging of series repeats.

Fox: Those bad boys on Fox’s Cops and America’s Most Wanted are staples, at least until society goes through a massive transformation.

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