Nets Deviate From the Fall-Launch Standard

With increased competition, rules get tossed

Gone are the days when TV viewers eagerly await fall and the new shows it brings. These days, new shows can pop up at any time.

As the television landscape has become increasingly competitive, with strong original programming from cable and reality sweeping every network's schedule, networks are launching new shows whenever they think those programs will do well. That means the end of the summer rerun season.

"There are no rules anymore," said Mitch Metcalf, executive vice president of scheduling for NBC. "The business is changing so fast that we can't just rewrite the rule book, we have to throw it out. There's a new situation every day, and we have to be incredibly versatile."

Summer has become the season to launch reality series. NBC plans to launch an eye-popping nine reality shows this summer, keeping 60% of its summer schedule original. CBS will launch dating show Cupid, and ABC has several potential reality shows, including Mike Fleiss's The Will. The WB will air surfing show North Shore
as well as commercial-free variety show Live From Tomorrow. UPN also is considering launching a show, although it hasn't decided whether the show will be scripted or unscripted.

But networks plan to use the summer to launch scripted shows as well. Fox will premiere several of its scripted shows early, to try to erase the disadvantage it faces each fall with Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series.

Fox has seen success launching reality shows in the off-season. American Idol
was a summer hit, and Joe Millionaire
and the second season of American Idol
have turned around its schedule. The network hopes the big ratings will boost its regular scripted shows, and it has seen that happen with 24
on Tuesday, Bernie Mac
on Wednesday and Fastlane
on Friday.

January strategy

"I think we are wisely using Joe Millionaire
and American Idol
to position some of our scripted shows," said Fox Executive Vice President of Strategic Program Planning Preston Beckman. "That was the key part of our January strategy. We wanted to learn the positive and negative lessons about how to use this unscripted phenomenon."

Fox also hopes the better ratings will bring viewers to the shows set to debut next month: Oliver Beene
on Sunday, March 9; Wanda at Large
on Wednesday, March 26, and The Pitts
on Sunday, March 30. And starting March 10, reality series Married by America
will join the network's Monday-night lineup, taking the time slot now occupied by Joe Millionaire.

Fox has drama Keen Eddie
and several other scripted shows for summer launches. The other broadcast networks are considering summer launches for dramas and comedies as well.

"The way people are viewing television has evolved over the past five years," said Rusty Mintz, senior vice president of program scheduling at The WB. "I think HBO really taught us all a lesson."

HBO has taken advantage of downtime at the broadcast networks to launch hits The Sopranos, Six Feet Under
and Sex and the City, all of which bowed either in the summer or in midwinter. Six Feet Under
will start its third season March 2.

But launches can come any time a network thinks they will work. This January saw a slew of reality shows introduced—all to high ratings. NBC is trying a six-episode run of crime drama Kingpin
during February sweeps. And CBS will premiere My Big Fat Greek Life
in late February. If it does anywhere near as well as the movie, the show will be a big hit.

Launches during sweeps go against conventional wisdom, said network executives, but certain programs warrant it. In the case of Kingpin, which will run through the heart of February sweeps, NBC thought the show was such high quality it warranted making an event out of the entire run, Metcalf said.

The network decided to run Kingpin
in February, saving up Boomtown
originals. The network is happy with Kingpin's ratings so far, and the show is likely to return as a 13-episode series next fall.

In the case of My Big Fat Greek Life, CBS wanted to take advantage of any momentum it might have coming off the Sunday, Feb. 23, Grammy awards, as well as a strong lead-in from a new episode of Everybody Loves Raymond
on Feb. 24.

"Those are the circumstances that will give us maximum sampling for the show," said Kelly Kahl, executive vice president of program planning and scheduling for CBS. The network also thought it could take advantage of the extra promotion time that comes with sweeps to boost the launch of Greek Life.

Still, the fall launch season isn't going away, especially since the greatest demand for television advertising comes during the fourth quarter, said Katz Television Group Vice President of Programming Bill Carroll.

"That doesn't mean there won't be opportunities to introduce new programming or to rectify changes in competitive situations," he said. "You can't just say 'I'm making plans for the fall' and then rest on your laurels. You need to make plans for next week, not next year."

Although networks occasionally launch shows early in the fall—as ABC did this year with "previews" of 8 Simple Rules
and Life With Bonnie
—that strategy can hurt a network with Nielsen, which sticks to a firm launch calendar and declares the "beginning" of the season. If a network gets big ratings for a show's premiere, but it comes before Nielsen's fall launch date, the network doesn't get any credit for those ratings in season-to-date ratings. Most networks aren't willing to give that up.

Artificial date

"Nielsen has become the official arbiter of when the broadcast season begins," Mintz said. "But it's such an artificial date. It doesn't serve shows, audiences or advertisers in any way. That's one of the things the industry needs to resolve."

Mintz also pointed out that even though networks are moving toward a year-round launch model, production companies and studios still are working on the old schedule, so it's difficult to have shows ready for a summer launch. Even if some shows are ready, networks face a penalty later when they run out of original episodes earlier than viewers expect.

"Launching a week or two early is usually not a problem, but it can bite you sometime down the road," Kahl said. "It's one of those factors you have to take into account when you want to consider launching a show early."