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March a hot month for new TV shows

Networks trying shows out before deciding on season
/ Source: The Associated Press

March has become a hot month to introduce TV programs.

NBC’s long-awaited boxing series “The Contender” made its entrance Monday night as did Showtime’s “Fat Actress.” Steven Bochco’s new cop drama “Blind Justice” debuts Tuesday on ABC.

And that’s only the start.

TV’s form of March Madness is giving viewers the most condensed opportunity to sample new fare since the season began in September.

“Historically, going back five, 10, 15 years, it would be fair to say March was kind of an afterthought,” said Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s scheduling chief. “It was a tough run between the February and May sweeps. A lot of shows were in repeats during that time.”

Instead of reruns, trying new series in March gives networks a chance to see whether or not they have potential before executives decide on the fall schedule in May.

Networks also can promote the new shows aggressively during January and February, when television usage is higher than any other time of the year, said Jeff Bader, ABC’s head of scheduling.

Anybody who watched the “NYPD Blue” finale on ABC last week would be hard-pressed not to know “Blind Justice” was coming, judging by all the promos the network ran.

ABC has used March as a launching pad for the past several years, he said. The big difference is: With the network struggling and desperate to fill holes, schedulers often had to do so with very little notice. This year, ABC has the luxury of more time.

The John Stamos comedy “Jake in Progress” will start on ABC Sunday, with the dramas “Eyes” and “Grey’s Anatomy” beginning the last week of the month.

On NBC, “Law & Order: Trial By Jury” began this month. The American adaptation of the British comedy “The Office” debuts March 24 and the highly touted miniseries “Revelations” starts in early April.

Fox has two new comedies, “Kelsey Grammer Presents: The Sketch Show” and “Life on a Stick,” trying out this month.

CBS has no new shows, partly because the “March Madness” of the men’s college basketball tournament disrupts the schedule for several evenings.

Broadcasters are also competing for attention from cable. Besides “Fat Actress” on Showtime, A&E’s “Intervention” series is also getting under way. Other networks have reality series featuring Farrah Fawcett and PR maven Lizzie Grubman. Cable networks have generally avoided September and the broadcast sweeps months — November, February, May and July (which is the least important) — when ratings are used to set local advertising rates.

“The one lesson you learn over and over again is there’s no safe haven for anyone,” Metcalf said. “March used to be more of a cable kind of month. We can’t afford to take any month of the year off.”

January was traditionally considered the start of television’s midseason and NBC had some success this year starting “Medium” then. The drawback of January is that executives have only a few weeks to decide whether to keep the shows on during the February sweeps.

So many shows are beginning this March that networks are facing a problem they usually only have to worry about in September: trying to get attention in a crowded schedule.

“The Contender” reached only 8.4 million people in its Monday debut, a slow start for a high-profile series.

“There’s an awful lot of spaghetti being thrown up against the wall the next few weeks,” said Kelly Kahl, chief scheduler at CBS. “We’ll see what sticks up there.”