Stratego for programmers

The networks are jockeying for position with new shows to knock off prime time winners

Ad executives are saying the theme for the new fall season is "Play It Safe" from a content standpoint. But most networks have made one or two key scheduling moves that may determine the success or failure of their strategies.

For ABC, it's Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, which pits new John Ritter comedy 8 Simple Rules
against NBC's new In-Laws.

For NBC, it's Thursday at 8:30 p.m., when it has paired Scrubs
with Friends
to battle Survivor. For CBS, depending on whom you talk to, it's either Monday at 10 p.m., when the new CSI: Miami
will battle Crossing Jordan
or Thursday at 10 p.m., when it has made an aggressive attempt to take on ER
with Without a Trace. Both strategies have the same motivation: Catch up with NBC.

For Fox, most network watchers are scoping out Monday night to see whether David Kelley can create more magic with Girls Club ,
a drama about three sexy lawyers, and restore Fox's formidability on that night.

UPN wants to build on the strong gains it has made with adults 18-34. Again, it's a split decision on which time period is key. Some say Monday at 9 p.m., when the new Buffy
companion, Haunted, will air. Others point to Tuesday at 9 p.m., when the new Enterprise
lead-out, a remake of Twilight Zone, will air.

The WB is putting a lot of effort and backing behind the new Everwood
on Mondays at 9 p.m. Growth (or not) for the network this year is almost assuredly tied to that time period, observers say.

At first blush, it's almost laughable to suggest that, with all the problems ABC has, the fate of its new season could hinge on one time period. Yet a consensus of network watchers points to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and 8 Simple Rules, the new Ritter comedy about a lovable but somewhat clueless dad, at least in the eyes of his teenage daughters.

Sam Armando, media director, broadcast research group, Starcom Worldwide says Simple Rules
is pivotal for ABC because Tuesday is the "core of the programming model" that the network is trying to build: family comedies leading into adult comedies leading into adult dramas.

And, historically, Tuesday has been an important night for ABC going back to Happy Days

and Three's Company
(in which Ritter also starred) in the '70s. When Tuesdays click, good things seem to happen to ABC.

Roy Rothstein, vice president, national broadcast research for Zenith Media, agrees. "It's supposed to be their hot new show," he says of 8 Simple Rules. "They are counting on it to knock off the In-Laws
so that NBC can't get off the ground with their comedies. To me, it's make or break for ABC."

Tuesday is critical to ABC for another reason as well: It's really the start of the week for the network in terms of promoting its prime time schedule. Monday Night Football
has a very different audience from the rest of the ABC schedule, Rothstein points out.

For CBS, the objective on some nights is to knock off NBC. Armando points to both Monday at 10, with the CSI: Miami-Crossing Jordan
matchup, and Thursdays at 10, with Without a Trace
vying against an aging E.R.
Armando thinks that the Monday battle is the more significant. "If CBS finishes second with Without a Trace," he says, "they'll be happy."

But that's not the case with CSI: Miami. "They want to finish first Monday at 10, and they need to if they're going to continue audience growth in the younger demographic and counter the gains NBC made last year."

Last season, he says, CBS lost ground on Mondays with Family Law.

But Paula Parra, associate director of communication insights, OMD, sees it a little differently. She believes that CBS has a two-year plan to overtake NBC's Thursday-night dominance. "ER
is very tired," she observes, predicting that CSI
will outperform it in the coming season.

Based on the pilot, CBS would appear to have a solid show in Without a Trace, says Parra, and she credits CBS with aggressive scheduling in taking on ER. If it works and NBC doesn't figure out the Friends
succession plan or shore up ER, she points out, "the whole night has the potential of falling apart for NBC."

That's exactly why most observers point to NBC's scheduling of Scrubs
on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. as its make-or-break move for the season. Survivor
on CBS will be tough competition, and the last thing NBC can afford is a lead-out for Friends, now in its last season, that loses 20% or 30% of that lucrative Thursday-night audience. If that happens, Armando says, "it's almost back to square one in building the night."

For Fox, Monday at 9 p.m. is pivotal. The network has a lot of problems, but, if producer Kelley delivers a solid Girls Club, the network fixes a night and, more important, a night early in the week when it can promote the rest of its schedule. "They did so well for so long there," says Armando. "That's a key contest."