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Nets Let Pilots Fly

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Strike or no strike, the networks hoped to leave advertisers at last week's pre-upfront presentations feeling upbeat about the fall. And for the most part, they succeeded.

But at this stage of the development season, it's anyone's guess as to what will make it onto their lineups. "Just because it looks good on paper, you still don't know how the networks are going to execute it," said Steve Sternberg, senior vp, broadcast research for TN Media.

Still, several pilot ideas look strong for next season. Among them are ABC's The Bench, a Supreme Court drama starring Sally Field; Fox's Emma Brody, a female-targeted romantic drama; The WB's Superman drama Smallville; and NBC's Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Perhaps the clearest snapshot advertisers walked away with last week was the direction in which the networks are heading. Take Fox, for example. "They have a definite idea of what they want to accomplish," Sternberg said, adding that the network seems focused on recapturing the female viewers it lost with the departures of Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Party of Five.

With few hit comedies on the WB's schedule, the network's development slate once again emphasized laughs. "The problem is the same as it's been for the last two years, and they're really aware of it," said Stacy Lynn Koerner, vp, broadcast research for TN Media. "But it's difficult because they only have a couple of nights with which to work."

Sternberg said that despite ABC's continued reliance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the network "might be in the best position of all because they've had more time to work on new product."

While most buyers said NBC continues to offer the most balanced schedule, Karey Burke, NBC's executive vp of prime-time development, refuses to rest on those accolades. With the network's elimination of its Sunday-night movie, programming that two-hour block might prove to be difficult. "We're making very few drama pilots. So as we move toward such an aggressive scheduling goal, that makes me nervous because we can't afford to have failures," she said.

Despite advertisers' positive response to the development slates, some believe the presentations are less valuable than they once were. In fact, Horizon Media chose not to send any buyers west.

"Given the time and cost restraints, making contact with the sales people in New York to obtain that information is adequate for our needs," said Aaron Cohen, Horizon executive vp of national broadcast.

Laura Caraccioli, Starcom Entertainment's vp and director, who did attend the upfront previews, said the "presentations have become so polished that the information we receive is less strategic, less insightful, and more about the networks posturing for the press and for their competitors."

Of course, at the top of most buyers' minds was the potential writers' strike this spring. And although the networks brandished so-called strike-proof programming, most buyers said scheduling those programs is key to giving advertisers a glimpse of what prime time might look like in the event of a strike.

"If clients are kicking off holiday campaigns next fall, we have to know the networks are going to work with us to get those ratings points," said Tom DeCabia, executive vp of Schulman/Advancers. "There definitely will need to be some outs, some negotiations and some protection on both sides."