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Season Preview: Debut Tradition Falls by Wayside

Sep 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The majority of the six major broadcast networks are eschewing the idea of a traditional premiere week this fall in favor of a more staggered launch of debuting series. The range of debut dates among the nontraditional scheduling strategies is far-reaching for some networks and tightly focused for others. For example, Fox will premiere its new fall shows over a three-month span, while ABC is doing so over four weeks.

NBC’s plans mark the biggest exception to this fall’s rule. The network is embracing wholeheartedly the traditional debut week, which begins Sept. 19 for the purposes of Nielsen Media Research data, by launching all but two of its shows within a seven-day period.

Each network has taken cues from its prime-time performance since the beginning of last season as it developed plans to debut its new shows.

Much has changed since fall 2004, when NBC hoped to drive viewers to its new season fare with help from its extensive coverage of the Athens Olympics. Over the course of the 2004-05 season ABC found huge hits in “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” CBS and Fox battled for first place in the adults 18 to 49 demographic, NBC suffered from major “Friends” withdrawal, UPN scored with “America’s Next Top Model” and The WB had a summer love affair with “Beauty and the Geek.”

Fox is in a better position this fall than it was a year ago due to the strength of its returning lineup, said Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of strategic program planning and research. That’s part of the reason why the network is stepping back from last year’s approach of unleashing multiple schedules throughout the beginning of the new season.

“We felt that we were coming into the new season with more returnable, established shows,” Mr. Beckman said, noting that the network can focus more energy on fall knowing that its winter schedule, led by “24” and “American Idol,” is a self-starter.

“We kind of know in January we have 2%BD; hours of programming coming that we assume will be pretty strong, and there was no [Summer] Olympics this year, so we went back to the playbook we did two years ago with ‘The O.C.'”

That playbook includes an early launch for shows such as “Prison Break” (Aug. 29) and the premiere of its Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday schedules before the season even begins.

The goal is to have several shows well into their initial runs before postseason baseball pre-empts new series in October, Mr. Beckman said.

“We will try and get a running start with our schedule,” he said. “With the exception of [the returns of] ‘Stacked’ and ‘That ’70s Show,’ everything will be on prior to baseball.”

NBC, which limped out of last season, is taking a more traditional, “back to the future” approach. The network is focusing the lion’s share of its premieres during the first week of the season, said Mitch Metcalf, the network’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling.

“We want to focus as much attention as we can on that great time of year when television fans know that new shows are going to be available,” Mr. Metcalf said, adding that NBC is looking at premiere week as a promotable event. “We have shows starting in their time periods and continuing in their time periods and not doing a lot of stunting.”

Despite having seven more hours of a prime-time broadcast schedule than Fox, NBC is launching fewer shows this fall-six series to Fox’s seven.

“We have a modest number of new shows and it’s basically a new show a night as we roll out, along with the returning favorites,” Mr. Metcalf said.

In contrast, ABC is rejecting the premise of a premiere week in favor of a staggered rollout, which gives the network a “stronger promotional base to promote new shows,” said Jeff Bader, executive VP of ABC Entertainment.

When ABC premieres its Sunday night schedule Sept. 25, for instance, it will heavily promote “Boston Legal” and “Commander in Chief,” both of which debut the next Tuesday.

This kind of breathing room isn’t reserved for dramas and reality series, Mr. Bader said: “We were careful of spacing out the comedies to give them a little more individual attention.”

CBS is following a “fairly traditional rollout schedule,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations for CBS and UPN. But CBS will wrap up its summer reality competition series and do special scheduling for a few shows.

“There are some accommodations here and there, for instance, to take care of [‘Rock Star: INXS’], to finish up ‘Big Brother,'” Mr. Kahl said.

Among the accommodations for new series, CBS plans to premiere the crime thriller “Criminal Minds” on Thursday, Sept. 22, behind the season premiere of “CSI.” CBS will air “Criminal Minds” in its 9 p.m. (ET) time period starting Sept. 28.

The network is also taking care of the sci-fi thriller “Threshold,” which is getting an early two-hour premiere Sept. 16, the day after “Survivor: Guatemala” premieres, Mr. Kahl said.

“That show is a little different for us, so there is an effort to get out of the fray and get some sampling,” he said.

UPN will also be concluding “R U the Girl With T-Boz and Chilli,” but the primary focus of CBS’s fellow Viacom network is getting one show in particular off the ground: Chris Rock’s highly anticipated Thursday comedy “Everybody Hates Chris,” Mr. Kahl said.

“It’s about driving as much attention to Chris Rock as we can,” he said.

The move to comedies on Thursdays displaces wrestling show “WWE SmackDown!,” which is migrating to Fridays under the new name “Friday Night SmackDown!”

“We know it’s an incredibly loyal audience, but at the same time we’re not going to take it for granted,” Mr. Kahl said of wrestling. “We hope that’s a real win-win for us.”

UPN is not the only network making an aggressive move on Thursday. The absence of “Friends” at 8 p.m. and the failure of “Joey” to reclaim the once dominant NBC Thursday audience has all the networks scrambling for new viewers.

The WB has moved its veteran drama “Smallville” into the 8 p.m. time period and is following at 9 p.m. with “Everwood.”

“You can almost see it as a land grab for networks,” said Rusty Mintz, senior VP of program scheduling and feature acquisitions for The WB. “We always saw Thursday as an important viewing night. It was essential that we make a statement.”

ABC is trying the same approach with its veteran “Alias,” which is also moving to Thursdays at 8 p.m.

“‘Alias’ is one of the few shows opposite ‘American Idol’ that actually worked,” Mr. Bader said, noting the show has a “very loyal audience” that could help the network “get [its] foot in the door” on Thursdays.

Despite all the time networks devote to scheduling their fall debuts, when and where a show debuts has limited impact on its ultimate success or failure, Mr. Kahl said.

“The common theme is to get as many eyeballs on the new shows as you can,” he said, “but then it’s up to the shows.”