Networks Hold Out On Finalizing Schedules

As the broadcast network programming teams huddled in their war rooms late last week putting the finishing touches on their prime-time schedules for the 2006-07 season, it was clear that because of the closeness of this season’s ratings race, each network was taking particular care in considering rivals’ potential schedules before finalizing their own.

“I feel like there are more moving pieces this year,” said one network programmer, who did not want to speak for attribution. “I bet after the schedules are announced, gradually over the summer you will see much more shifting and moves back and forth by every network before the start of next season.”

At week’s end, all the network slates were still in a state of flux. For example, Fox was watching to see if ABC moved Grey’s Anatomy from Sunday to another night. If that happens, Fox is said to be ready to move its Tuesday medical drama, House, to Sunday. Also, CBS may scrap its Sunday Night Movie, and move its 10 p.m. Thursday hit, Without a Trace, to Sundays at 10 if ABC moves Grey’s Anatomy.

ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson said late last Friday that a decision on whether to move Grey’s Anatomy had not been made. But ABC did schedule two episodes of the show for May 15—possibly as a trial balloon—the day before it unveils its schedule for next season. McPherson did say that if any of the network’s hit shows are moved, it may not be until mid-season.

One prime-time scheduling move that has been locked in takes place on Saturday, lately a programming graveyard for all nets. ABC, in an agreement with sister cable network ESPN, will begin airing college football games on Saturdays this fall on a regular basis, and then carry Nascar Busch Series races next spring. McPherson declined to comment, but sources familiar with the deal confirmed that it is a go.

On Fridays, with CBS said to be planning to return its older skewing dramas, and NBC possibly moving Medium to that night to join Las Vegas, ABC is considering putting younger-skewing romantic dramas and dramedies to counterprogram its competitors’ crime-heavy slates.

As far as watching other networks before locking in schedules, McPherson said: “We haven’t changed our schedule from the one we announced during the two years I’ve been in this job, and we don’t want to be shifting a lot. But if we have to, we will.”

“We’re not playing a defensive game,” said Preston Beckman, evp for strategic program planning at Fox, “even though we announce our schedule last.” Fox does its upfront presentation on May 18 at 4 p.m. “We don’t want to only be reacting to what the other networks do, but we do have to consider what they do and then do what’s in our best interest.”

By presenting its schedule first during upfront week, NBC exposes its scheduling plans, allowing competitors to make last-minute adjustments before their presentations. Jeff Zucker, president of NBCU’s TV Group, has in the past said he is not concerned about altering the schedule at a later date if need be.

With Fox, ABC and CBS all expected to finish within one tenth of a rating point apart from each other in this season’s adults 18-49 demo race, it’s no surprise each network is carefully watching what the others do. There are nearly $9 billion in total riding on these schedules. “There are plenty of holes in every network’s schedule,” said Lyle Schwartz, director of research and marketplace analysis at Mediaedge:cia. “CBS has the most stable schedule, but many of its shows have been on for a long time and it may need to freshen things up. ABC has a couple of hot shows, but it has a lot of holes. And Fox has more solid shows than it has had in a while, but it still depends too much for its [gross rating points] on American Idol. And NBC needs help on almost every night.”

Beckman took issue that Fox is a “one-trick pony” with Idol. “We have more potential building blocks on our schedule than we’ve had in a long time,” he said, adding that the network plans to use those shows next season to help launch new ones. Among the new Fox shows will be dramas American Crime, Primary and Vanished, and sitcom Til Death, which will in all likelihood be paired with freshman Sunday sitcom The War at Home, which is expected to be renewed. Beckman said Fox is planning to introduce most of its fall schedule in August and early September, prior to the official start of the season in late September.

NBC is expected to have new dramas The Black Donnellys, Kidnapped, Friday Night Lights, Heroes and Studio 60 on its fall schedule, as well as sitcom Community Service. Other sitcoms it has picked up are The Singles Table and Twenty Good Years.

ABC plans to incorporate dramas Six Degrees, Brothers and Sisters, Men in Trees, Day Break and Nine Lives, to its schedule either for fall or mid-season. Sitcoms ABC is picking up include In Case of Emergency, Help Me Help You and Notes From the Underbelly, and possibly the hour-long Ugly Betty.

As usual, CBS and half-sibling the CW have kept the most mum, and have not announced any new show pickups, although Adweek sister publication Mediaweek learned late last week that CW, in a surprise move, had decided to bring back 7th Heaven after the WB announced the show would not return after 10 seasons. New shows expected to make the CBS schedule are drama Shark and sitcom Class.