When 39 weeks just aren’t enough

Sep 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

With all the broadcast networks searching for the next original summer programming hit, it begs the question: Are fall series premieres still of utmost importance or is the much debated 52-week season finally here?
A 52-week season is not happening overnight, but in baby steps. NBC and Fox keep adding more reality shows to boost their summer ratings; ABC turned to cable network USA for fresh summer fare with “Monk”; two networks are planning original scripted series for next summer; and midseason orders are getting heftier.
While the merits of NBC’s reality trio of “Dog Eat Dog,” “Meet My Folks” and “Spy TV” are being debated by TV critics, NBC leads the adults 18 to 49 ratings race with nearly 40 percent of its prime-time lineup filled with original programming. NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker has said his efforts to increase the rotation of cost-efficient reality series is an answer to the cable networks “treating summer as if it’s a sweeps period.”
“In the coming years we’re going to have to move to a 52-week original programming cycle,” Mr. Zucker said in July at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif. “We can’t
just allow cable to continue to be the only one programming original programs in the summer.”
The big problem for NBC and its broadcast competitors is how to stretch its programming budget from fall to midseason to next summer.
Hollywood talent agency and studio communities say NBC is going to look at more “time-share” situations, where NBC will use a bigger number of midseason replacement series to split time periods with some fall 2002 programming.
NBC already has been aggressive in making formal commitments to a number of midseason series. On the comedy front, NBC has been making slightly larger 13-episode commitments to Rich Appel’s re-shot “A.U.S.A.” sitcom and the Jonathan Grof-created “It’s Not About Me,” in addition to Gavin Polone’s “Life at Five Feet” and “The Kumars at No. 42” (working title) as potential midseason entries. Mr. Zucker also reaffirmed his commitment to bring back the Julia Louis-Dreyfus-led “Watching Ellie” (after a mixed reception to its midseason campaign this season) for a limited 13- to 15-episode run. Midseason dramas on slate include “Kingpin.”
“In effect, some time periods will be shared by a number of shows, but the trick is [to determine] how many shows will fit into that category and what time periods they will fit into,” said a talent agency packager, who requested anonymity. “It’s not unusual for NBC or the other networks to stock up early on midseason replacements, but NBC does appear committed to increasing the size of their orders instead of going with the shorter six-episode flights.”
Sources say NBC may be most inclined to toy with the time-share concept on its historically troubled Tuesday night schedule, which has the unproven sitcoms “In-Laws” and “Hidden Hills” filling the 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. (ET) half-hour slots, respectively.
On rotation
Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling, declined to comment on speculation that NBC will pursue a time-share strategy, but he acknowledged that it “comes down [to] utilizing versatile [series] assets in a strategic way to maintain our flexibility” throughout a full season.
“We can’t be so rigid where we’re locked into a plan,” Mr. Metcalf said. “As long as we can get the word out to the audience on where these shows are, and we have terrific promotion and advertising to do that, the viewers will find the shows they want to watch on NBC.”
The time-share strategy is something that both The WB and ABC have toyed with on a limited basis. Two years ago, The WB used the time-share experiment to rotate in original episodes of “Felicity” and “Jack & Jill,” with mixed success. ABC tried shared time periods between “Once and Again” and “NYPD Blue,” but raised the ire of some viewers, who expressed dismay at not finding their favorite shows in their normal time slots.
“I think The WB started an interesting experiment in sharing time periods between `Felicity’ and `Jack & Jill,’ but those kind of situations can also be somewhat disruptive to viewing habits,” said Fox’s Preston Beckman, executive VP of program planning and scheduling. “We could do more 13-and-13 [episodes] time-share situations, but I don’t think simply stretching out the number of original episodes is going to necessarily guarantee increased viewership.”
Instead, with the success of the talent-search-based “American Idol” among adults 18 to 49 this summer, Mr. Beckman said Fox is going to look at other limited-run flights of the show through crucial points of the 2002-03 season. Mr. Beckman said the “start-and-finish” nature of “American Idol” lends itself largely to “opportunistic” pre-sweeps scheduling.
“We have to be smart with `American Idol’ as well as with any of our other alternative series in not oversaturating the airwaves and burning them out,” said Mr. Beckman, citing ABC’s exploitation of now-departed “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” “You are never going to see us run one [version of] `American Idol’ after another ends.”
At least three of the broadcast network entertainment presidents have floated the idea of adding more scripted programming, balanced with unscripted series, to their summer schedules-providing they can find a workable financial mode.
Mr. Zucker said he would like to launch two scripted series next summer. Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman was also pursing scripted series for next summer.
ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne also seems ready to get in the game.
“What I hope we can do is to combine some interesting nonfiction, reality programming with less expensive scripted series,” she said. “And `Monk’ is a good example of the kind of cross-platform opportunities that exist with cable.”
However, while year-round programming has become the topic du jour, network executives say it has in no way led them to question the importance of premiere week in September. “It’s a 52-week business, but the main emphasis is on the 35-week regular season schedule,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling.
Focusing on the regular-season schedule certainly hasn’t hurt CBS. Summer repeats of “CSI” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” largely retain 75 percent or more of their demo ratings and total viewers from their first-run plays on the network. For those reasons, Mr. Kahl said CBS is not feeling hard-pressed to increase the size of episodic orders on other series to fill any other potential scheduling gaps.
“A lot of [networks] are ordering more episodes than in the recent past, but it really is [an economic] crunch to get any more than 23 to 26 episodes to stretch out a series’ original run,” Mr. Kahl said.
Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience research for Magna Global USA, said the bulk of returning shows (63 percent) will debut the week of Sept. 23-recognized by Nielsen Media Research as the start of the 2002-03 season. Among the new, incoming series, Mr. Sternberg said 39 percent will launch shortly before premiere week, 44 percent will start that week and only 17 percent will debut a week or more later.
“The network races are so close, one network simply can’t afford to give its competitors a leg up by allowing them to debut a potentially strong new show opposite repeats.”