Network Execs Talk Patience at IRTS Panel

Nov 15, 2006  •  Post A Comment

“Dancing With the Stars” will be back on the air in March in time slots still to be decided because ABC has to decide whether it to throw its megahit reality show up against Fox’s time-tested, mid-season juggernaut “American Idol.”

“I have a feeling ‘American Idol’ is going to go down,” ABC Executive VP Jeff Bader said, with just the right mix of “I’m kidding” and “I’m betting” in his voice, to the breakfast crowd that attended an International Radio & Television Society panel discussion that drew him and his three network counterparts to New York on Wednesday.

The big theme was patience in the face of tepid audience response and/or giant hits that can turn an hour or two into a Bermuda triangle for hapless competitors.

But the first topic of discussion was the O.J. Simpson special that Fox announced it would air Nov. 27 and 29 to close the first sweeps ratings book of the 2006-2007 season. A spinoff of his pending ReganBooks tome, with the working title “If I Did It, Here’s How,” the project ended up being a News Corp. family project but didn’t start out that way, according to Preston Beckman, senior VP of strategic program planning for Fox.

Mr. Beckman said talks for the special didn’t start until about two weeks ago, when he read a story about Mr. Simpson’s “hypothetical” take on the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Mr. Simpson was acquitted of criminal charges in 1995 and has never paid the judgment from a civil case in which he was judged responsible for their gruesome deaths.

Mr. Beckman said he called Mike Darnell, the Fox executive VP for alternative programming, whose credits have tended toward the sensational, and started the ball rolling.

The scheduler said it just “conveniently” turned out the special could be ready in time for sweeps.

“I don’t think we should get any more grief about Victoria’s Secret,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP for programming and operations for CBS and The CW, referring to the network’s annual runway parade of scantily clad supermodels.

The back and forth was sometimes sharp but always good-natured.

When Mitch Metcalf, executive VP of program planning and scheduling for NBC, tried again to explain why reality programming at 8 p.m. is only a preferred option and “not a hard and fast rule,” Mr. Bader said, “We all have thoughts like that, but we don’t say them out loud.”

Mr. Metcalf said NBC will announced its midseason schedule in a few days and that “We’ll take care of ‘Friday Night Lights’ because we believe in it.” NBC announced Monday that it picked up a full freshman season of the critically praised but ratings-challenged series this fall.

Another critics’ darling, Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” continues to draw an upscale but shrinking audience and “obviously is not retaining the size of audience we want” at 10 p.m. Monday, Mr. Metcalf said. But he added that the downside of a move is the real possibility of further viewing disruption. He said the back nine episodes recently ordered will “focus increasingly on characters and relationships.”

Asked whether that meant less focus on “crazy Christians,” Mr. Metcalf repeated that there would be more focus on characters and relationships.

ABC’s biggest test of patience is “The Nine,” which has been lavishly praised but is not living up to its “Lost” lead-in. “There is nothing wrong with that show,” Mr. Bader said.

Mr. Beckman said Fox “probably” will pick up the back nine for “Standoff,” a romantic FBI thriller that recently moved to 8 p.m. Tuesday, opposite “Friday Night Lights” and CBS’ “NCIS,” which Mr. Beckman described as the poster child for patience.

As for “The O.C.,” Fox’s once hot and now North Pole-cold teen drama, Mr. Beckman said, “The best thing for us is to leave it there” opposite “Grey’s Anatomy” on Thursday and hope it can regenerate some heat in December, when it’s competing with reruns.