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Networks face challenges with fall schedules

Struggling NBC first up to offer its plans to potential advertisers
/ Source: The Associated Press

With all the strategy sessions and leaps of faith, the annual television network upfront presentations are a bit like the NFL or NBA drafts.

This week ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the fledgling CW and My Network TV will present their fall schedules in theaters packed with advertisers. The network executives will announce which pilots they’ve decided to make into shows, which series they’ve canceled and which old favorites they’ve decided to risk moving to new nights. As for the advertisers, they then have to decide which networks to invest in, and how much. NBC is up first Monday.

Then everybody can sit back and decide whether those moves were brilliant or boneheaded.

Much of the action in the current TV season happened outside the living room. Broadcasters spent a considerable amount of time on deals to test the public appetite for programming on iPods, cell phones or the Internet.

While there were new TV stars (Jason Lee, Patrick Dempsey) and high-profile flame-outs (Geena Davis, Heather Graham), nothing dramatically changed viewing habits and the network pecking order the way “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” did a year earlier.

“It’s all right for TV to be stable and not changing,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, president of the consumer experience practice at Interpublic Media. “There is enough that is changing.”

Here’s a look at what to expect this week:

Status quo doesn’t help much when you’re in fourth place, and one more year removed from the time your Thursday night dominance made you the envy of the industry. Advertisers want to be wowed by what NBC is planning.

While “My Name is Earl” and “The Office” show promise, “ER” is fading and NBC has a gaping hole at 8 p.m. on Thursday. Its three chief rivals have all been more successful at introducing new dramas over the past few years.

Except for the game show “Deal or No Deal,” NBC has no real hits.

In addition to already renewing several shows including the “Law & Order” trilogy, NBC took the unusual step of already committing to three new dramas before the schedule was set. The most promising is “Studio 60: On the Sunset Strip,” a star-packed ensemble about life backstage at a late-night TV comedy, created by “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin. NBC has also given the green light to “The Black Donnellys,” about four Irish brothers involved in organized crime, and “Kidnapped,” about the abduction of a 15-year-old. A series adaptation of the book “Friday Night Lights” also looks likely.

“Now it seems they realize they have to make the financial investment in programming and think beyond quarter-to-quarter,” said Sharianne Brill, analyst for the ad-buying firm Carat USA. “Their development looks better than what they had in the past.”

Last season’s sensations resuscitated ABC, and the growth of “Grey’s Anatomy” helped make ABC the only network to add viewers year-to-year. But there’s a troubling lack of depth here: no ABC comedy, for instance, has any buzz and “Lost” is an island adrift on Wednesday nights.

“They have some very hot shows — we all know what they are — but they don’t carry a network,” said Marc Berman, who writes “The Programming Insider” for Media Week Online.

By making an astonishing 33 pilots this spring, ABC’s executives seem to recognize the need to build. The loss of “Monday Night Football” creates another hole in the schedule.

ABC has built a powerhouse Sunday-night lineup and faces the risky decision of whether to break it up to spread the wealth to other nights. The fact that the “Grey’s Anatomy” season finale is being aired on a Monday may be a telling indicator of what ABC chiefs are thinking.

Thank you, Simon Cowell. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Fox’s challenge has been the same the past few years — to prove that it has more to offer than “American Idol,” particularly in the fall.

“They’re in a lot better shape than they were,” said Steve Sternberg, analyst for Magna Global. “House” has blossomed into a top 10 hit, “24” is a dependable thriller and “Prison Break” and “Bones” have both shown promise.

To get an early start preparing for fall, Fox has already committed to scheduling four new series, including three dramas: “Vanished,” “Primary” and “American Crime,” the latter a legal yarn from Jerry Bruckheimer’s production house. The comedy “‘Til Death,” about dewy-eyed newlyweds living next door to frequent fighters, stars Brad Garrett of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and may be Fox’s best chance in years for a broad-appeal comedy hit.

The biggest need? Finding a pulse on Thursday nights.

TV’s top dog is a model of a well-run network behind chief Leslie Moonves and his team. The CBS schedule is deep and popular, and is routinely refreshed with successful newcomers like “The Unit” and “Criminal Minds.”

If the public appetite for crime-oriented dramas were to suddenly disappear, CBS would be in trouble, but there’s nothing to indicate that’s imminent. As a reminder that all good things eventually end, signature shows like “Survivor” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” have passed their peaks of popularity.

“Their programming is safe,” Brill said. “I think they need to have some edgier programming, some distinctive voices.”

The theory seems solid: take the best of UPN and the WB and together you can create a strong network. “America’s Next Top Model” and “Gilmore Girls” should be able to coexist.

The CW needs to establish its own personality if it wants to become a fifth major network. Over 10 years, the WB and UPN never reached that level.

“If you have two failures and add them up, it doesn’t necessarily make a hit network,” Berman said. “They need to bring in some new shows.”

My Network TV, cobbled together by Fox-owned stations to fill space left by the folding UPN, will introduce its first schedule, too. Univision, the nation’s dominant Spanish-language network, also has a schedule announcement.