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Billion Dollar Mystery

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Aong advertisers, network executives and, yes, even the press, the 2004-05 season now can become lore. After all, no one predicted that ABC's Desperate Housewives and Lost would emerge as the year's two standouts. And their success only serves to reconfirm what we already suspected: How to achieve success in prime time remains a mystery. So perhaps it's no surprise that the broadcasters finally have embraced the unknown, making mysteries next season's most significant programming trend. But many buyers believe the search for sci-fi success could be in vain, noting that, with few exceptions—the X-Files among them—the genre has generally flopped on the small screen. Executives at the WB, which is banking on the horror drama Supernatural, point to the genre's success on the small screen. Another trend revolves around Thursday coming into play for all the networks, with ABC, Fox, UPN and the WB all aggressively scheduling the night, following NBC's decline this season. As for what will be next season's biggest shows, that will be up to the viewers, of course. But we can weigh in with this overview of offerings and opinions, all of which carry the caveat that until next season, what will succeed remains a mystery.

ABC
On the strength of Desperate Housewives, Lost, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and midseason hit Grey's Anatomy, ABC clearly is the network with the most momentum going into next season. But as to whether it can build on that momentum remains to be seen.

Having been named entertainment president so late in the process last year, Stephen McPherson may not have been able to take full credit—or blame in the event of failure—for the current season's lineup. But his scheduling of Grey's Anatomy after Desperate Housewives was an inspired choice that helped reinforce the benefits of audience flow industry-wide.

What immediately leaps out in next fall's lineup is McPherson's attempt to create similar flow out of the network's other hit, Lost. First, it required moving the J.J. Abrams drama from 8 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays, a move that most advertisers support. "It always matters when a time shift pulls some viewers out of pattern," says John Rash, chief broadcast negotiator at Campbell Mithun. "But Lost now has the opportunity to seize advantage of a higher viewing level time period and to further bolster the night for ABC."

Like Grey's Anatomy flowing out of Housewives, Rash also gives a thumbs-up to the sci-fi-ish Invasion following Lost. "It's relatively seamless," he says of the transition between the two shows. "For viewers of Lost, Invasion seems to have the same production and storytelling qualities that could create another hit on ABC."

Of course, flow isn't always necessary. In pushing Lost later, the network has moved two comedies—George Lopez and the new Freddie Prinze Jr. sitcom Freddie—into the 8–9 p.m. block. On paper, the shift between the comedy block and the hit drama may appear incongruous. "But Lost doesn't require a lead-in at this point," observes Steve Sternberg, evp, director of audience analysis, Magna Global. "So anything you put in there won't really hurt it."

Lost's move to 9 p.m. pushes Alias to Thursdays at 8 p.m. Like other networks in search of cinema dollars on the night, advertisers say the move could pay off for the network. "Everyone is looking for a successful strategy on Thursdays," says Brad Adgate, senior vp, director of research at Horizon. "Alias might not do as well as it did on Wednesdays following Lost, but it has a committed fan base that will follow it anywhere."

Pairing with Alias is the network's remake of The Night Stalker. As a sci-fi drama in a year filled with sci-fi dramas, combined with being scheduled in one of the toughest time slots, Stalker may be a candidate for early cancellation. "Night Stalker could run into trouble," says Shari Anne Brill, vp, director of programming, Carat USA. "CSI is just so strong, and there's not enough audience to go around."

Come the fall, the network will be putting much of its marketing muscle behind the Tuesday 9 p.m. drama Commander-in-Chief. Starring Geena Davis as the would-be leader of the free world, the series won kudos from many advertisers.

"I thought this was one of the best new shows on any network's schedule," says Brill. "It deserves an audience."

But whether it will find an audience is another question. Sternberg says he likes the show too, but was unsure as to its chance at success. "To have a politically oriented show like this coming on just as The West Wing is declining is risky," he said.

What's more, one top media executive questions whether Commander would play in the red states. "I just don't know if viewers are ready to entertain the idea of a woman as president, even if it's fiction," says this exec.

With ABC trimming its number of half-hour comedies from eight to six, only two new sitcoms appear on the fall schedule: Freddie and the workplace sitcom Hot Properties. But the one comedy that generated buzz was the Monday-night Heather Graham comedy Emily's Reasons Why Not, which won't appear until after the football season. "There was something accessible, lovable and fun about her character," says Rash.

Like returning series Jake in Progress, Emily is a single- camera comedy, which Rash notes may suggest ABC is trending toward younger and edgier content, as opposed to the family-style comedy of According to Jim. But Rash points out that such hip formats could limit breakthrough appeal. "These are unlikely to become broad, accessible, dual-gender and multigenerational programs that every network is attempting to find," he says.



CBS
As a network once maligned for drawing the oldest of audiences, CBS' gains among viewers 18-49 continue to humble its competitors. And much of those gains are a tribute to the programming savvy of CBS chairman Leslie Moonves.

From Amazing Race to Survivor, from CSI to Without a Trace, Moonves has recast CBS as a destination for viewers both young and old. Survivor's strength through 10 cycles continues to surprise analysts, while Amazing Race has almost single-handedly aged down the network.

Meanwhile, CSI spawned more than just a franchise. It signaled the dawning of producer Jerry Bruckheimer's prime-time empire, while its forensic theme and procedural format gave birth to an entire programming trend, most apparent on CBS itself, with shows ranging from JAG spinoff NCIS to Bruckheimer's Cold Case and Without a Trace.

Adding two comedies and four dramas to its schedule, CBS shows both strength and stability going into the fall. But while that strength will likely insure the network's continued dominance in households, total viewers and viewers 25-54, buyers were less than wowed by the new additions to the lineup.

At a network already crime-heavy, some advertisers were taken aback by the fact that two of CBS' new dramas—Close to Home and Criminal Minds-—are also crime shows. Perhaps ironically, buyers liked those crime shows more than either one of the other two entries: Ghost Whisperer and Threshold.

With Close to Home, another Bruckheimer production, replacing the canceled Judging Amy on Tuesdays at 10 p.m., several buyers suggest the show's female lead could help retain Amy's core female audience, while its Midwest setting could bring in a whole new set of viewers. "Most crime shows have been urban-centered," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, vp/director of Starcom Entertainment. "So to have a suburban center makes it feel different and, for some viewers, more real."

But with Close to Home airing opposite NBC's Law & Order: SVU, some analysts question the program's scheduling. "Why put a show on that has a lot of similarities to SVU," Sternberg asks. "All it can do is split that audience, so I don't see it as the most effective counterprogramming."

CBS also gave Wednesday night a face-lift, by canceling 60 Minutes 2 at 8 p.m. and moving its 9 p.m. comedy block back an hour to lead off the night. In the 9 p.m. time slot is the network's other new crime show, Criminal Minds, starring Mandy Patinkin as a fed tracking the nation's most heinous criminal offenders. "I thought my limit on crime shows had already been reached, but I liked both Close to Home and Criminal Minds," says Caraccioli-Davis, adding that the latter "may look similar to things we've seen before, but it's well-executed."

Unfortunately, it is scheduled in a tough time period. Sternberg says he also likes the show. "But Wednesdays at 9 p.m., opposite Lost, I just don't think it will do that well," he says.

The network's two other new dramas air back-to-back on Fridays. First up at 8 p.m. is Ghost Whisperer, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt as a, well, Medium-like medium. It was roundly dismissed by most advertisers, less because it appears like a knockoff of NBC's drama than for its own lack of appeal. What's more, in an attempt to age down the night, it replaces critical favorite Joan of Arcadia. "I don't see why talking to ghosts will get a younger audience than talking to God," Sternberg says.

Besides, notes Adgate, just because the network might want to get younger on Fridays doesn't mean it's possible. "I think younger viewers are out on Fridays going to movies and doing other things," he says. "You have to fish where the fish are, so the networks may need to go with young families at home or older viewers on the night."

On the comedy side, most buyers like the Monday 8:30 sitcom How I Met Your Mother. For all intents and purposes, the domestic/romantic comedy is actually set in the future, but is told in flashbacks that take place in the present. "There's enough of a gimmick to reel you in, and then the talent really delivered," Caraccioli-Davis says of the pilot.

Conversely, the new 9:30 p.m. series Out of Practice could very well flop. Exec produced by Frasier's Joe Keenan and Christopher Lloyd and narrated by Kelsey Grammer, the series stars Henry Winkler and Stockard Channing as the household heads of a family of doctors. Despite its obvious pedigree, Caraccioli-Davis says, "It just seemed to fall flat."



FOX
Following Gail Berman's unexpected exit in March as Fox entertainment president, newly appointed programming chief Peter Liguori already has the support of most advertisers. With little or no time to impact Fox's pilot process, Liguori virtually inherited the network's fall development slate. But with hits to his name from his former job as FX president and CEO like The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me, buyers remain hopeful that Liguori's knack for programming—and promotion-—bodes well for the network.

Despite the 11th-hour executive shuffle, advertisers say the News Corp.-owned network presented one of the strongest schedules of any broadcaster at the upfronts. Of course, looks can be deceiving. "I always like what Fox serves up at the upfronts," says Caraccioli-Davis. "But what eventually comes to bear in the fall often changes. And that's still the big question mark with this network."

Fox's continued commitment to baseball is a challenge for entertainment programming. Between league playoff games and the World Series, schedules are constantly interrupted, and viewers have a hard time finding their favorite shows. Liguori is hoping Monday's new 9 p.m. drama Prison Break can change that. It's a tough, male-skewing action soap in the vein of 24, and Liguori believes he can sell it to Major League Baseball fans. So do advertisers.

"The last program I remember really benefiting from baseball was Dark Angel," says Sternberg. "Prison Break could be the next. It may skew slightly older than a lot of Fox programs, but it could work."

And skewing older may not be such a bad thing for the network. With comedies that seem to target the younger segment of 18-49 viewers, reaching the 35-49 segment is key to broadening the network's appeal. "Finding mature dramas has been a real problem for Fox. They've had a lot of misses at bat," says Adgate. With 24 set to reclaim Mondays at 9 p.m. in January, Adgate says keeping the slot warm with Prison Break—and, consequently, limiting repeats of both series—was "a smart move."

Another show that is sure to figure prominently in Fox's baseball promotion is Bones. With Fox still hoping to break into the procedural business, the series revolves around a forensic archaeologist who teams up with a cop, played by Angel's David Boreanaz. But the network's Tuesday 8 p.m. scheduling of the series could be risky.

"When you look across the schedule, Bones could have potential," Caraccioli-Davis observes, noting that ABC comedies According to Jim and Rodney air in the same time period, as does CBS' NCIS and NBC's The Biggest Loser. But, she notes, "I just don't know if Bones is a self-starter."

Like the medical hit House, which drew subpar ratings throughout the fourth quarter until it later paired up with American Idol, Bones gets the plum post-Idol slot in January, when the smash-hit music contest show returns to the schedule. Fox is hoping Bones can hold on until then.

Of all the networks, Fox seems to remain the most committed to comedy, with 11 half hours on the fall schedule. As a show of faith in its most acclaimed comedy, buyers overwhelmingly supported the network's renewal of its Emmy-winning but ratings-challenged series Arrested Development. But opinions are split as to whether or not its new Monday 8 p.m. berth will help or hurt it.

"The one ingredient missing for that show is viewers," says Adgate. "I just don't know how Fox expects a show to build—let alone lead off a night-—when it didn't do well lodged in Sunday's block of comedies."

Sternberg, however, says quirky comedy has worked for Fox on the night. "Ally McBeal did well on Mondays," he notes. "So I think it makes sense moving Arrested there."

Sternberg also gave the thumbs-up to Fox's scheduling of its new Sunday 8:30 p.m. entry The War at Home. As the night's only live-action comedy, War could bridge audience flow between animated evergreen The Simpsons and the later block of Seth McFarlane comedies Family Guy and American Dad.

"Very few comedies have worked well for Fox at 9:30," Sternberg says, noting that Arrested Development was among those underperformers. "So if something like American Dad is finally working there, why mess around with that?"

And why not give War the strongest lead-in possible? After all, many advertisers responded well to the clips, believing it marked a return to form for the network. "With The War at Home, it seems as if Fox is going back to its roots, in the vein of Married With Children," says Caraccioli-Davis. "It had the right feel for a Sunday-night comedy, and it looked like a good fit."



NBC
Having fallen this season from first to fourth place in the key adult 18-49 demographic, NBC Universal TV Group president Jeff Zucker and NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly are hell-bent on rebuilding the network.

Both execs have noted the virtual parity that exists among the four major networks, and they have further suggested that one big hit could turn their fortunes around. But bouncing back can be an arduous task, and most analysts remain skeptical as to NBC's ability to reverse its decline next fall.

"I walked away from NBC's presentation wondering if they knew their audience," says Caraccioli-Davis, who cited the Friday 10 p.m. drama Inconceivable as a big stumble. Set in a fertility clinic, the series looks at the subject of infertility both from comic and dramatic perspectives. "Having aired Providence on Fridays and knowing a large part of the audience makeup on the night is women and knowing that infertility is a big problem for many women, I just don't know if viewers are ready to deal with this subject matter in a Nip/Tuck or Desperate Housewives kind of way."

Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec vp, director of global research, Initiative, agrees. "I think the concept could be divisive in the culture," she says. "Lots of people have strong views about how children should or should not be conceived. So to create comedy and drama out of a subject that either is sensitive to couples trying to conceive or serves as a lightning rod for people who have strong opinions about reproduction doesn't make this the strongest show in the hour."

Another show that drew the ire of analysts was the midseason comedy Thick and Thin. Starring Jessica Capshaw (The Practice) as a formerly fat woman, the series came off as insensitive to weight-conscious viewers. "Again, I'm not sure they know their audience," Caraccioli-Davis says. "In a world where this is a major issue for a lot of clients in the packaged-goods area, I'm just not sure how funny this is."

Carat USA's Brill goes even further. "I did not like it," she says. "There's not a lot of humor in the struggle that many people go through to lose weight. I don't think people going through that struggle joke like that. You can tell no one who developed the show has ever gone through that struggle. It just wasn't real."

Advertisers were also surprised by the network's decision to air both The Apprentice and The Apprentice: Martha Stewart next fall. As the show gradually declines with each iteration, "it concerns me that NBC has two versions on at the same time," Koerner says. "I wouldn't be surprised if Martha gets more sampling than the next generation of the Donald."

On the reality front, NBC seems to be taking a page from ABC's playbook with the transformational Three Wishes. Airing Friday at 8 p.m., the series stars singer Amy Grant touring the country in search of people in need. It's the sort of feel-good show that always has a happy ending. And buyers believe it may capture the bulk of Friday night's available audience. "People like going on these emotional journeys, knowing the wish always gets fulfilled," Caraccioli-Davis says. "At least it's a move in a positive direction for reality and away from more mean-spirited shows, which is always a good thing when it comes to advertisers."

If any show seemed to really click with buyers, it's the Tuesday 9 p.m. comedy My Name Is Earl. A single-camera comedy starring Jason Lee (Almost Famous) as a not-so-nice guy who wins the lottery, loses the ticket and tries to right the wrongs of his past, the show seems to have the right mix of dark humor and likable characters.

Caraccioli-Davis says, "I loved it." And Brill adds, "There was something very engaging about Lee's character."

But having developed 19 potential comedies for the fall, the fact that only one made it onto NBC's fall lineup did come as a shock to several buyers. One media executive says, "When you order only one new sitcom and 22 more episodes of Joey, it shows you don't have confidence in your comedy development."



UPN
If anyone had told buyers prior to the upfronts that UPN would come out with the most talked-about series of next fall, no one would have believed it. But that's exactly what happened with the new comedy Everybody Hates Chris.

Narrated and executive produced by Chris Rock, the single-camera series is based on the comic's childhood experiences growing up in Brooklyn. "It just looked really funny and really great," says Horizon's Adgate. "And it got the biggest reaction of all the shows at all six networks."

Advertiser response notwithstanding, several analysts cautioned against assigning too much hype to the series. "The upfronts are sales meetings, and pilots are sales vehicles. So if you can't put together clips that are funny for a comedy, the show has no business being on TV," says Magna Global's Sternberg. "You really have to think about whether or not any comedy pilot is a one-joke show or whether the characters can carry on week-to-week."

Even if the show has legs, Caraccioli-Davis says Chris may be hamstrung by the fact that it's not on a larger network. After all, a 4 share may make it a hit by UPN standards. "But the question is, does it have the potential to break through?" she asks. "And to answer that, you have to take into consideration issues such as UPN's distribution and even the channel positioning of its affiliates nationwide."

As a potential hit for UPN, Chris also serves as the linchpin to a new night of programming for the network. Having moved WWE Smackdown! to Fridays, UPN has programmed Thursday night with four comedies, including returning series Eve and Cuts and newcomer Love, Inc., starring Shannen Doherty.

Along with its continued targeting of African American viewers, UPN has refocused the rest of its energies on targeting young women. And that move is largely due to America's Next Top Model.

To capitalize on Model's strength, critically hailed Veronica Mars moves from Tuesdays to Wednesdays and now follows Model (two cycles of the runway reality series will air next season, for a total of 26 episodes).

In Mars' former Tuesday time slot is the twentysomething drama Sex, Lies & Secrets, starring Denise Richards. Model repeats, which move from Fridays, will serve as Sex's lead-in. Caraccioli-Davis says shifting those repeats is "a brilliant programming maneuver which could broaden the audience for Model on Wednesday." But she was less effusive about Sex. "It just looked like Melrose Place run amok," she says.



WB
Presenting his first full schedule as the WB's entertainment president, David Janollari offered a slate of shows most notable for their A-list behind-the-scenes talent, including Jerry Bruckheimer, Tom Fontana, Marta Kauffman, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick.

Advertiser response to the network's fall schedule was generally positive. In fact, of all the sci-fi shows that appeared on broadcasters' development slates, the WB's Tuesday 9 p.m. drama Supernatural drew the most praise. "If it's well-executed, they have a surprise success on their hands," says Campbell Mithun's Rash.

At first blush, Supernatural's pairing with Gilmore Girls may appear unusual. But WB executives contend that horror moviegoers are largely comprised of young females, and they hope to retain at least part of Gilmore Girls' young female audience there.

But the WB's premise hasn't convinced all advertisers just yet. "I don't see Supernatural working after Gilmore Girls," says Carat's Brill, who suggests pairing the show with a more male-skewing program like Smallville. Without that muscular lead-in, Rash says, the WB challenge will be "to expose Supernatural to those male teens and young adults who are less likely to watch Gilmore Girls than they would be Smallville."

With Smallville having led off Wednesdays this past season, the Superman drama moves to Thursdays at 8 p.m., making room for One Tree Hill on Wednesdays at 8, followed by the multigenerational, female-skewing drama Related, from Friends creator Marta Kauffman. Of all its nights, Wednesday's flow between the female-skewing Hill and Related seems to be ideal. "I like that combination," says Initiative's Koerner. "Both dramas have real emotional substance."

Of course, Smallville's move to Thursdays is a play on the part of the network for cinema dollars. Like ABC's Alias, Small-ville's loyal core following is likely to move with it. And even as competition on the night gets increasingly tough, Rash believes there is room for all of these shows. "While Smallville may have smaller ratings than its previous time slot, it may have higher revenue because of the need for so many movie studios to advertise on Thursday night."

If there's a kink in the WB's schedule, it may well be its Sunday-night lineup, which seems to careen from Reba repeats to Charmed to Blue Collar TV. Conventional wisdom might have assumed Reba would flow better into Blue Collar TV. But with ABC's Desperate Housewives airing at 9, Koerner says moving Charmed to the 9 p.m. slot was never an option. "It may be a weird setup," she observes. "But the need to counterprogram at 9 is imperative, and Blue Collar TV is a solid swing there." A.J. Frutkin is a senior editor at Mediaweek who covers TV production.

MONDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 9 PM
Now that CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond is history and replacement Two and a Half Men is unlikely to grab as many ratings points, the competition is hoping to capitalize on this increased opportunity in the Monday at 9 time slot. With Fox's current Monday 9 p.m. occupant, 24, taking a break until midseason, the network is counting on drama Prison Break to keep viewers glued to the time period. Prison Break is about a man falsely sent to death row and the brother who tries to save him. The WB, which is sending veteran Everwood to its own death row (Thursday at 9 p.m.), is counting on aging heartthrob Don Johnson to draw viewers to Just Legal, which involves a down-on-his-luck ambulance chaser who tries to mentor a young, brilliant legal prodigy (Million Dollar Baby's Jay Baruchel). Prison Break is rough and gritty, Just Legal warm and fuzzy. Prison Break has a few things working against it. In the fourth quarter, it's opposite ABC's Monday Night Football. Plus, Fox has already announced 24 will return to the Monday 9 p.m. hour in January, leaving Prison Break off the midseason schedule. Although Just Legal will not be a breakout, if enough viewers from bona fide hit lead-in 7th Heaven stick around (75 percent to 80 percent retention could result in survival), the pending death of Everwood on Thursday will not be in vain.

TUESDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 10 PM
While the ratings this past season for Boston Legal were not as strong as current time-period occupant Grey's Anatomy, they were large enough to warrant a second season, and ABC is hoping this David E. Kelley legal drama will fit the long-term bill. Boston Legal, which replaces NYPD Blue in the time period, is up against CBS' Close to Home, about a young, aggressive prosecutor (The Bold and the Beautiful star Jennifer Finnigan) with a perfect conviction record who tries cases that take place in her community. Close to Home steps in for Judging Amy, which aired for six years in this time period. CBS' lead-in is the network's youngest-skewing show, The Amazing Race, which should help attract a younger crowd to Close to Home. While you can't blame CBS for trying something new or ABC for planning aggressively, the problem is a) NBC's competing Law & Order: SVU is still a top 20 vehicle, and b) all three dramas in the Tuesday 10 p.m. hour are law-related. On top of that, the familiarity of SVU and, to a lesser degree, Boston Legal, will not bode well for the unproven Close to Home. As Finnigan is about to learn, life in prime time is a bigger challenge than daytime. Hopefully, she left the door open for a possible return to The Bold and the Beautiful.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 9 PM
If your network's name is anything other than Fox, the good news for you in the Wednesday 9 p.m. hour is the absence of American Idol in fourth quarter. The bad news: ABC's Lost will now be airing in the time period. With NBC in the doldrums and former time-period occupant The West Wing losing steam, a new show about the inner workings of government is worth a try. E-Ring moves the political drama to the Pentagon. CBS also focuses on the government with Criminal Minds, a thriller centered on work done by the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. While Lost will have the bulk of the viewers this night, there is one thing E-Ring has going for it: Martha Stewart. If there is any interest in The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, which kicks off NBC Wednesday—and it's likely that at least initially she will—more viewers might stay with the network for E-Ring rather than switch to Criminal Minds (which airs out of surprise CBS returnee Yes, Dear). With half of CBS' schedule—11 hours—of a crime-related nature, Criminal Minds could very well get lost in the shuffle. Although neither drama is expected to crack the top 20, Apprentice: Martha leading into E-Ring gives NBC a leg up over CBS. Fans tired of The West Wing might find E-Ring of interest. Criminal Minds is unlikely to make it past midseason.

THURSDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 8 PM
Although there is no reason to believe that either sitcom will make a dent opposite CBS' dominant Survivor (which heads to Guatemala next fall), the already lackluster Joey on NBC will not benefit opposite UPN's Everybody Hates Chris, a sitcom narrated by and loosely based on comedian Chris Rock's childhood. UPN is boldly going where it never has before and will replace veteran WWE Smackdown! (which is moving to Friday) with a two-hour comedy block anchored by Everybody Hates Chris. That's the gutsiest programming move of the upcoming season. Initially, and before I saw the clip of the riotous Chris (which, of the 31 new upcoming network shows, elicited the most positive response at the network upfront presentations), I hated the idea of a comedy that dared to poke fun at the title of the late, and great, Everybody Loves Raymond. But after laughing out loud at the antics of young Chris, something tells me Matt LeBlanc, who cannot carry his own sitcom, won't be doing so well next season. In fact, ratings for the already struggling Joey (which would not have been renewed had NBC been in better shape) will probably only get worse. While even the strongest UPN comedy won't outdeliver Joey, viewers in search of some real laughs on Thursday night could do much worse than tuning in to UPN.

THURSDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 9 PM
When the competition is CBS' blockbuster CSI, the top-rated scripted series in prime time, and NBC's still potent The Apprentice, expectations for other shows cannot be too high. Hoping to take a bite out of whatever audience is left on the most profitable night of the week, ABC is reviving cult favorite The Night Stalker, the story of a crime reporter who is determined to find the truth behind his wife's murder. Relationship-oriented Reunion on Fox, meanwhile, focuses on a group of six friends over the course of 20 years. Reunion airs out of The O.C. in search of the same audience, while relocated Alias leads into The Night Stalker. If science fiction is really as hot as the networks seem to think—or hope—it is, then The Night Stalker might have a small advantage. But unless the rating walls around CSI come crumbling down, and that's unlikely, the real mystery to ponder is which drama, The Night Stalker or Reunion, will be canceled first. My prediction is that because Reunion faces another feel-good drama, it will likely be gone in midseason, while The Night Stalker will probably last the season (as did the 1974-75 original, which ended after one year). When the competition is CSI and an egomaniacal billionaire named Donald Trump, it's wise to keep your bags packed.

FRIDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 8 PM
After a long week at work, which would you prefer: a) a drama about a young woman (Jennifer Love Hewitt) who communicates with the dead, or b) a gushy reality hour with country singer Amy Grant granting wishes to needy individuals? Although there is no one show that will dominate the Friday 8 p.m. hour (and that includes ABC's Supernanny and UPN's WWE Smackdown!), the unfortunate reality of any series airing on Friday is declining HUT levels. More people are out celebrating the beginning of the weekend (or watching cable) than tuning into network TV. Although Three Wishes sounds similar to failed NBC Universal syndicated hour Home Delivery this season (not to mention the syndicated Richard Simmon's Dreammaker in 1999), ending the week watching people have their dreams come true is, well, sweet. Spending an hour with a serious drama, Ghost Whisperer, requires too much, well, thinking. If Amber Tamblyn dealing with God could not make the grade in this time period on CBS, does a miscast Jennifer Love Hewitt talking to ghosts really sound appealing? There is no reason to believe either series will be a top-rated hit. But enlightenment via a feel-good reality hour is the better option. Too bad NBC didn't consider Jennifer Love Hewitt as host instead of Amy Grant. She would have been the perfect fit.

SUNDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 9 PM
When an established series—The West Wing, in this case—shifts from a six-year run on Wednesday at 9 p.m. into the Sunday 8 p.m. hour, a current dark hole for NBC, the assumption is that this will be the show's last season. Although ABC's red-hot Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is the current show to beat in the Sunday 8 p.m. hour, CBS' Cold Case, which has a similar demographic skew, is the main competition for The West Wing. Can Martin Sheen and company (which includes the return of Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits as opposing candidates for the presidency) make a dent in CBS' popular Cold Case, or will NBC have yet another time period in need of fixing? My prediction is that it will take more than an aging political drama to stir up the time period and knock three-year-old Cold Case off its established perch. While The West Wing has certainly had a prosperous run, particularly among upscale viewers, there is not enough life left in the drama to ignite interest in a time period NBC has been failing in for years. Factor in a weak lead-in, Dateline, versus CBS' still potent 60 Minutes, and it looks like this could be the last year for The West Wing. The biggest loser here could be the Emmy Awards, which won't be the same without the show.