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Season Preview: The New Battleground: Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

Sep 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

While much attention will be focused at the start of this season on the Thursday 8 p.m. (ET) time period prized by advertisers, another slot has the attention of schedulers and industry insiders: 9 p.m. Wednesdays. For the first time in recent history, all six of the major broadcast networks will launch dramas new to the time period.

“It really is one of the fun smackdowns to look at,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations for CBS and UPN. “It’s one of those time periods where you don’t know what will happen.”

Within the course of just a few weeks, CBS will debut the thriller procedural “Criminal Minds,” NBC is launching the Pentagon drama “E-Ring,” Fox will premiere the legal buddy dramedy “Head Cases” and The WB is introducing the sister relationship series “Related.” In a move to strengthen the night and give it more post-“America’s Next Top Model” bounce, UPN is moving its critically acclaimed but still modestly rated “Veronica Mars” into the time slot, and in what many consider the most significant schedule shuffle for a returning series, ABC is shifting its Wednesday night game changer “Lost” from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The networks didn’t plan to have a time period this fall where everyone is introducing something new, said Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research for Fox.

“I don’t think that any of us said, ‘Let’s put six dramas in the time period,'” Mr. Beckman said. “Individually, every network is putting together their schedule and wound up with a drama in that time period.”

The decision to move “Lost” to 9 p.m. was an easy one for the ABC, said Jeff Bader, executive VP of ABC Entertainment.

“It’s a combination of things,” Mr. Bader said. “It is the centerpiece of Wednesday. It allows us to launch a 10 p.m. show, and one of our goals this season was to reinforce our 10 o’clock hours. It’s also a higher HUT [households using television] time period.”

“Lost” is expected to dominate, Fox’s Mr. Beckman said. “It would be the height of insanity to believe we could go in there and beat ‘Lost,'” he said.

That doesn’t mean Fox can’t be competitive, since “Head Cases,” which has two sitcoms as lead-ins from the 8 p.m. hour, will be much lighter than the traditional legal drama, he said.

“It’s really a buddy comedy,” Mr. Beckman said of the male-skewing show. “There’s a lot of humor in it. It’s almost like having a comedy in the time period.”

The WB is also hoping “Related’s” lighter tone and female twist will help it stand out from the competition, including “Lost,” said Rusty Mintz, senior VP of program scheduling and feature acquisitions.

“We see it as a relationship show, as a female show, as a drama that is always punctuated with a lot of comedy,” he said. “We’re in a very unique counterprogramming position on the night.”

NBC knows what it’s in for in the time period, Mitch Metcalf, senior VP of program planning and scheduling for the network, said.

“That one [time slot] is a little drama-genre-heavy, admittedly,” Mr. Metcalf said, conceding “Lost” will be the show to beat. “Everyone will be fighting for second. ‘E-Ring’ has three great things going for it: a great producer, great actors and a good clean hook. It should enable the show to come to a respectable finish.”

Despite the popularity of “Lost,” the audience for the time period is large and varied enough for more than one network to find success, Mr. Kahl said.

“Some other show will come up,” he said, “Obviously, we’re hoping it’s ‘Criminal Minds.'”

And success means different things for different networks, Mr. Kahl said.

“‘Veronica’ is probably not going to win the time period, but the goal is to hold on to the ‘Top Model’ audience a little better, and we will have done very well for ourselves,” he added.

The networks will be fighting for every bit of the Wednesday night performance of their new shows, Mr. Metcalf predicted.

“That’s going to be a real knife fight,” he said of the 9 p.m. time period. “There will be bodies on the floor.”