The broadcast networks are looking for a do-over.
After an awful autumn that saw the Big Five shed a stunning 12% of their collective audience year-to-year, the networks are planning radical surgery on their prime-time schedules next year. More than a dozen newcomers will have their debuts between next week (NBC’s “Momma’s Boys”) and April (CBS’ “Harper’s Island”), while another dozen established series also make their returns.
Executives are praying the onslaught of new fare will help them shake off the lingering aftereffects of last year’s writers’ strike, which resulted in a development season that produced even fewer fall successes than usual. Only two freshman—CBS’ “The Mentalist” and Fox’s “Fringe”—have emerged as hits, while The CW’s “90210” is doing decently in the network’s target audience of young women.
“This whole season is shaping up as a season of getting everything to feel normal again,” said Jeff Bader, ABC’s longtime head of scheduling and program strategy. “I think there’s a part of me that’s hoping TV will (follow the model of) what happened after the baseball strike. They had a slow return, and then baseball was healthy again. The hope is that by the time we get to next fall, we’ll start to see a real uptick.”
While all the networks are down this fall, the breadth of their midseason changes—and the strategies behind them—varies considerably.
Fox, for example, is making a number of changes, but not necessarily as a result of its fall performance. Because big guns “American Idol” and “24” are always held for January, the network has built substantial changes into its winter DNA. So while the other networks finalized their January schedules just last week, Fox announced its midseason plans more than a month ago.
What follows is a network-by-network look at how the other broadcasters plan to attack the new year.
Big midseason changes have been in the forecast for the network since May, when programmers decided not to rush strike-delayed pilots into production. That meant ABC started the season with just one new scripted series (“Life on Mars”), leaving more than a half-dozen rookies waiting to come off the bench in the second half of the season.
What ABC didn’t plan for, of course, was the failure of several sophomore series, including “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Pushing Daisies” and “Eli Stone.” Those series will be leaving the air next month, forcing the network both to premiere new shows and find ways to relaunch some existing series.
“The first quarter is going to be more like a fall launch for us,” Mr. Bader said.
Unlike a September rollout, however, first-place ABC isn’t planning to unveil its new wares during a single premiere week. Instead, the network’s premieres (and relaunches) will come in waves.
The early focus in January will be using existing tentpoles to strengthen newer series. “The Bachelor” will help birth reality series “True Beauty”; “Lost” will boost the reboot of “Mars”; “Grey’s Anatomy” will be enlisted to spice up ratings for “Private Practice.”
As spring approaches, look for ABC to use the promotional platform of the Oscars (Feb. 22), along with the return of “Dancing With the Stars,” to help hype three new dramas: “The Unusuals,” “Castle” and “Cupid.” The three hours will premiere over six weeks, putting ABC’s marketing muscle to a major test.
Mr. Bader thinks the shows have a good shot of getting sampled by viewers.
“We’ve paced it out,” he said, noting the premiere schedule for the dramas is not nearly as intense as the one most networks use to launch fall shows.
“Three new dramas over six weeks should be easier than three in one week,” he said.
If ABC has an abundance of new programming to unveil, NBC almost seems to have the opposite problem.
The fourth-place network didn’t get a much-needed hit during the fourth quarter, with “My Own Worst Enemy,” “Crusoe” and “Knight Rider” all disappointing. Among NBC’s sophomore series, only “Chuck” has shown a pulse, with “Life” struggling and “Lipstick Jungle” teetering on the edge of extinction.
But while ABC hopes its toy chest of shiny new playthings will boost its standings, NBC is praying that one new show—plus its Feb. 1 broadcast of the Super Bowl—can do the trick.
“‘Kings’ is the real centerpiece,” said NBC Executive Vice President of Scheduling and Program Planning Mitch Metcalf, referring to the network’s buzzworthy drama starring “Deadwood” scene stealer Ian McShane.
Indeed, NBC is giving the show one of its most storied time slots: Thursdays at 9 p.m. “Kings” will premiere there March 19, following in the footsteps of “ER,” “L.A. Law” and “Hill Street Blues.”
“We’ve taken our time with ‘Kings’ and we didn’t rush it to air,” Mr. Metcalf said. “It’s a really, really good show … (and) I feel good about us having one strong scheduling opportunity for us to focus on.”
NBC had planned to also premiere “The Philanthropist” and its untitled Amy Poehler sitcom later this season. Mr. Metcalf said the network now won’t make any decisions until after seeing episodes of both projects, raising the possibility of just one new scripted bow during the winter and spring.
“If you looked historically, this would be a lower number of shows and new show launches for us for this time of year,” he said. “But I like the schedule we have. … To throw shows into time periods now, and say, ‘These are the shows and the dates’ now, would get us back into the problem we had in the fall. We were rushing to get up to speed (after the strike) and we weren’t able to roll out our shows the way we would have liked. Now we’re going to take our time.”
The network will compensate for the lack of new comedies and dramas by vamping with reality shows. “Momma’s Boys” premieres next week and runs into early next year, while next month brings the arrival of the hastily assembled “Superstars of Dance” and the long-gestating “Howie Do It.” Then in March, NBC will supersize “The Celebrity Apprentice,” airing two-hour episodes of the show on Sundays.
Mr. Metcalf is particularly high on the latter idea, saying it will help NBC quickly reinvent itself on a night in which the network’s football contract forces it to have a split personality throughout the season.
“We’re going to be able to establish ourselves on Sunday,” he said.
Stability and normalcy were the buzzwords for this network in the fall, and the same holds true for midseason.
Despite the strike, fall 2008 on CBS looked pretty much like any other autumn on the network, with a handful of new shows and just a couple of time-slot changes for returning shows.
Audiences rewarded the network’s low-maintenance schedule, giving CBS first place in viewers and putting it in a tie with ABC among adults 18-49 for much of the fall. Overall viewership is off just 3%, the smallest decline of any network.
With so much working, CBS is barely altering its lineup during the first quarter. Friday failure “The Ex-List” will be replaced by new episodes of “Flashpoint,” a Canadian import that did nicely on the night during the summer.
The network also will test out new unscripted half-hour “Gameshow in My Head” by double-pumping it on Saturday nights from 8 to 9 p.m. Because there’s so little first-run fare on Saturdays—save for Fox’s long-running “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted,” and CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery”—skeptics could be forgiven for thinking CBS is burning off “Gameshow.”
Not so, said Kelly Kahl, the network’s senior executive vice president in charge of managing the schedule grids. The network’s Sunday-through-Friday schedule simply has no real holes in it, and CBS executives have never fully given up on the idea of programming original shows on Saturdays.
“There’s no reason Saturdays have to lag. In fact we do quite well with ‘48 Hours’ at 10 p.m.,” Mr. Kahl said. “So if we could find something that becomes a destination for audiences on Saturdays at 8, that would be a good thing.”
CBS’ other big move for early 2009 won’t come until April, when “Eleventh Hour” wraps up its shortened season, allowing mystery drama “Harper’s Island” a chance to benefit from a “CSI” lead-in Thursdays at 10 p.m. The move allows CBS to give “Hour” a good shot to build an audience on Thursdays, while also giving the network a chance to use its biggest drama hit as a launching pad for another series.
Mr. Kahl said “Eleventh Hour” and “Harper’s Island” are not in a bake-off.
“The goal for us is to simply give each show the best shot we can,” he said. “If they both work, what a great problem that is to have.”
Still unresolved is where CBS will slot the 13 episodes of “Rules of Engagement” it has in the can. The network will likely wait until “Worst Week” wraps its shortened freshman season, opening up 9:30 p.m. Mondays in March. “Rules” has worked in the slot before, but don’t be surprised if CBS decides to give first-year half-hour “Gary Unmarried” a chance in the time slot.
Not many changes are in the works at the fifth network, which ended up having a pretty decent fall.
Mondays are working very nicely with “Gossip Girl” and “One Tree Hill,” while “90210” and “Privileged” are proving to be a nice combo on Tuesdays. And while Thursday’s lineup of “Smallville” and “Supernatural” aren’t setting the world on fire, The CW isn’t about to make any changes to the night just yet. Ditto the low-upside Fridays, where comedies and repeats are probably the best The CW can do until it figures out a better replacement for “WWE Smackdown.”
That leaves Wednesday as the only night in need of immediate attention, with “America’s Next Top Model” on hiatus for a couple of months. In The CW’s most interesting schedule move of the winter, the network last week said it would air “13—Fear Is Real” in the 8 p.m. Wednesday time slot normally filled by “Model.”
The biggest fear The CW has, of course, is that “Fear” will get crushed by Fox’s “American Idol.” To give viewers another chance to catch the show, The CW will repeat “Fear” Fridays at 9 p.m.
Another sore spot for The CW is Sunday nights. The network’s decision to let fledgling studio Media Rights Capital program and sell the night fizzled fast, but at least gave The CW space to focus its energies on launching “90210.” (Very) old movies and repeats will help numb the pain until next fall, when network executives will hopefully figure out a better strategy for the night.
There aren’t many changes in the works at MyNet, which got a boost this fall by importing “WWE Smackdown” from The CW.
Look for Monday night series “Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed” to take a brief break next month. It will be replaced with a new show, “Masters of Illusion,” in the 9 p.m. slot. “Magic” returns in early spring with new episodes.
MyNet also is adding reality series “Vice Squad” at 9 p.m. Tuesday, temporarily displacing “Jail.” “Vice Squad” offers ride-along access with local police agencies in various U.S. cities. “Jail” is expected to return in the spring.