Prime Time's New Reality

For fall, broadcast networks bend the rules of the game

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

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
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

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

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.