Networks releasing fall schedules

Monday, May 17, 2004

NEW YORK -- This week, broadcast networks unveil their fall schedules in presentations that, in past years, offered the first glimpse of hits such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Friends."

Of course, they were the first time the dogs "Coupling" and "Skin" were seen, too.

The glitzy schedule introductions, known as "upfronts" because the goal is to persuade advertisers to buy commercials for next season, seem less important every year.

Television scheduling is increasingly a year-round game, and often a network's lineup in the spring is markedly different than in September. Cable networks are cutting into an advertising market once reserved exclusively for the broadcasters, and clog March and April with their own upfronts.

Still, around $9 billion will change hands in the next few weeks, so it's worth taking a look at how the four biggest broadcasters can convince advertisers of their worth. CBS and NBC are in the strongest shape; Fox and ABC have many more questions.

CBS will finish the year as the nation's most popular network. Its strength going forward is that advertisers talk about shoring up a time slot here or there, rather than wholesale changes.

"I would put them up as a model of a strong TV network at this time," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, who advises advertisers on what to buy. "They know who their audience is. They would like it to be younger, but they've settled into delivering a good, broad range of programming. Their strength is their stability."

CBS has basically kept its viewership level the past five years while everyone else has declined, said Steve Sternberg, another adviser to ad buyers.

'Crime and justice network'

The network announced Sunday the last season of "Everybody Loves Raymond," so it would help to develop some new comedies. Another "CSI" spinoff, this time based in New York, will start next season.

"A lot of people have called them the crime and justice network," Koerner said. "I think what CBS could do is show a little more variety."

There are similar concerns at NBC, which will introduce its fourth "Law & Order" series. Since these dramas do well in the ratings, network executives say it's hard to argue with what the public wants.

With the end of "Friends" and "Frasier," NBC is desperately in need of strong new comedies, and much of its development process was geared toward getting laughs.

Most closely watched will be "Joey," the "Friends" spinoff with Matt LeBlanc that will inherit his old show's time slot.

A big part of the reason NBC earns the most advertising revenue -- even more than CBS -- is because movie companies want to reach young people on Thursday nights. Advertisers would feel a lot better knowing NBC has a solid comedy opening those nights, said ad consultant Sharianne Brill.

Koerner said the buzz she's heard about "Joey" was that it wasn't terrible.

"The concept of relief being associated with a new show doesn't inspire a lot of confidence," she said.

NBC also needs help on Tuesdays. If "Whoopi" or "Happy Family" are renewed, that's a tipoff NBC's comedy development was disappointing, Brill said.

Without "American Idol" or the ageless "The Simpsons," Fox would be really hurting.

"There was a time when Fox was considered this great, edgy new drama factory," Sternberg said. Yet with the exception of "The O.C.," Fox has done little the past few years to replace signature shows "Ally McBeal" or "The X-Files."

Worse, by moving a solid show like "Boston Public" to Friday, it lost traction on Mondays -- which used to be a strong night for Fox dramas -- and killed off a solid program before its time.

UPN and the WB, by aggressively going after young viewers, has been picking off some of Fox's audience, Koerner said. Fox needs to hit paydirt with something new: it has two projects, for instance, about law enforcement agents infiltrating high schools.

ABC has been a disaster area, and may have complicated things by dismissing its top entertainment executives last month. That means the new boss, Steve McPherson, will be unveiling a schedule largely developed by his fired predecessors.

"They don't have anything really strong," Brill said. "I don't think they have a good foundation to build on at all."

ABC has concentrated on broad-appeal comedies the past few years, with modest success and bad luck, like when John Ritter died on the eve of the sophomore season for "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teen-Age Daughter."

One possible route out of the darkness could be to try to attract young women, Koerner said.

With a post-Sept. 11 emphasis on home and hearth, there's been less for young, single women to watch, she said. Shows in development like "The Demarco Affairs," about three sisters who inherit the family wedding planning business, and comedies starring Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jessica Simpson could help.

ABC lacks a big hit, a show people talk about over the watercooler like "American Idol" or "Survivor." But contrary to some in the business, Sternberg believes ABC should worry less about finding one of those shows and just shore things up the best it can.

"If they could come up with one drama that would work with football on Mondays or one or two more comedies that work, they won't be in horrible shape," he said.

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