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Roll Of The Dice

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We learned many important lessons during May's week of upfront schedule announcements. Reality rules, hogging 18 prime-time hours this fall, up from six a year earlier. The networks remain clueless about reviving the moribund sitcom. The 52-week programming year is coming closer, but it ain't here yet. Las Vegas is the unofficial capital of America, playing host to three new shows. For such a putatively creative business, brand extension runs rampant, with spin-offs of CSI, Friends, Law & Order and The Practice. And reality kingpin Mark Burnett is this year's Jerry Bruckheimer. Most everyone agrees it will continue to be a two-horse race between NBC and CBS, with the gap narrowing closer than ever—even, given CBS' geriatric skew, among the living. But Steve Sternberg, executive vp/director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA, notes that if Fox can avoid a horrible fall, it could be in the mix, as well, with as little as two-tenths of a ratings point separating three networks in adults 18-49. "I'm not saying they're going to, but CBS and Fox both have a real chance to catch NBC this year." Meanwhile, ABC and WB have issues, Fox's three-part schedule is confusing even to hardened media pros, and UPN was quietly impressive. As usual, we spoke to media-agency ratings analysts, buyers and television execs to get the lay of the land. And if someone cracks the next reality smasheroo, all bets are off.

NBC

NBC president Jeff Zucker did his best to reassure all and sundry that everything would be alright post-Friends, and with just four hours of new shows for the fall, the network is clearly confident. Still, the net's new shows didn't blow anyone away, and staying flat in the ratings will be a struggle. Even with what seemed like a month of Friends farewell programming, NBC was down 4 percent in the adults 18-49 demo. When your entire network seems to be riding on Donald Trump, it can't be easy to sleep at night.

NBC went from eight sitcoms this past season to four this fall. Despite making something like 15 comedy pilots, the net slotted only two pre-sold shows—hardly a ringing endorsement of sitcom development.

Monday at 10 is LAX, an airport drama with Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood. It could have a Vegas-y fun feel, and NBC is banking on its sexy stars, but it's unclear how much time viewers want to spend at the airport. LAX probably loses ground from last year's Average Joe. That reality hour slides to Tuesday at 8—where it ought to improve over last year's Whoopi and Happy Family—followed at 9 by Father of the Pride, the mega-bucks Dreamworks CGI-animated show about Siegfried & Roy's lions. The show is different and risky and cost a bundle, but the clips played poorly and analysts were left scratching their heads. NBC-ers insist the humor is so sophisticated that it couldn't play at 8, but why limit your kids audience? "NBC seemed so high on this one, and now I just think they're high," quips one analyst.

On Wednesday at 8, analysts couldn't figure the tone of Hawaii, whose clips mixed eye-candy scenery and buddy-cop comedy with some grisly action. "A disaster," opines Jordan Breslow, director of national broadcast research for MediaCom. "There's no Magnum P.I.-type character to draw you in." At 10, venerable Law & Order has already lost a step and will clearly be hurt by CSI: NY. With The West Wing winding down, it's an off night for NBC.

Thursday is the big question, of course. The consensus is that Joey, at 8, ain't no Friends, but it's probably good enough. "It's not Frasier either," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec vp/director of global research for Initiative, who worries that there's "not enough dimensionality to the supporting characters." Most analysts peg Joey at a 16 or 17 share, enough to make it the year's top new comedy. More importantly, most foresee strength and perhaps growth from The Apprentice at 9, though they expect the Donald to wear out his welcome before long. NBC may have shored up its critical revenue night, but most analysts predict Thursday will be down. One observer chides the net for failing to use The Apprentice to build a new long-term asset.

Most analysts endorse the shift of Third Watch to 9 on Friday, making room for Medical Investigation, perhaps NBC's best-looking pilot, at 10. This CSI wannabe may well handle CBS' dr. vegas, making this one of NBC's growth nights. Saturday's a throwaway, with Apprentice repeats at 8 (insiders say the net needs the repeat to defray costs) and a movie. Sunday is stet, and with the resurgent Crossing Jordan already knocking off The Practice, analysts see no reason why it can't handle the Fleet Street spin-off with ease. With a full season of Jordan, NBC could see gains here. But losses on Wednesday, Thursday and perhaps Monday are looming, as is CBS. "[NBC's] scheduling and programming casts a major shadow over their ability to retain 18-49 supremacy," says Shari Anne Brill, vp/director of programming at Carat. "I think the party's over."

The Contender, Mark Burnett's boxing show with Sly Stallone, looked emotionally satisfying, but it's racing to get on air before Fox knockoff The Next Great Champ. Insiders loved midseason's Revelations, though agency types wonder if the religious content renders it unbuyable. The fourth installment of Law & Order, dubbed Trial by Jury, due midseason, will help plug whatever's leaking worse, Monday or Friday at 10. And no one is sure when NBC will try to get more comedy on the board; backups may wait until next June. More reality is likely in the interim, with insiders eyeing Tuesday at 9 and Wednesday at 8 if scripted shows falter.

CBS

CBS has continued to close the gap with a sliding NBC by holding even in 18-49 and gaining in its breadbasket 25-54 demo. That said, CBS is not likely to overtake its rival in the younger demo just yet, though 25-54 is up for grabs. (Of course, CBS wins handily in households and total viewers, but that's not how the ad game is played.) Some thought CBS played it a bit safe and didn't make many bold moves to get younger, but that has not been the network's style. Most observers credit the net's steady hand, with only five new shows, one a surefire winner.

Monday's new comedy at 8:30, Listen Up, with Jason Alexander as a sportswriter, was singularly unimpressive, but it's a safe time period. Even better news is the emergence of Two and a Half Men at 9:30, lately retaining almost all of its Raymond lead-in and set to move up to 9 after Raymond's swan song.

New to Tuesday at 9 is Clubhouse, about a 16-year-old batboy for a Yankees-like baseball team. "It sounded like a movie of the week," says Koerner. "I'm still not convinced." Breslow notes that being sandwiched between NCIS and Judging Amy virtually guarantees an older skew, though it might still be younger than The Guardian.

Wednesday is where CBS looks to make headway. With King of Queens holding the fort at 9, Center of the Universe has John Goodman playing a typical John Goodman role. It won't win any awards for originality, but the star has earned a reservoir of goodwill, and this could pair up better with its lead-in than did Becker or The Stones. In the big battle at 10, most analysts expect Law & Order to prevail over CSI: NY—call it a 17 share to a 16—but Sternberg thinks CBS could pull an upset. "People have been looking for something else in that time period," he says, noting that ABC's Kingdom Hospital premiere beat Law & Order in demos. CBS-ers say they don't have to win, just improve the time slot. Versus last season's Brotherhood of Poland, N.H., that's a no-brainer.

Thursday's strong lineup is status quo. Few expect Survivor to gain much, even without facing Friends. CSI at 9 has its hands full demo-wise with Donald Trump. And Without a Trace at 10 might grow a bit. On Friday, insiders are concerned with how critical darling Joan of Arcadia wore down over the season and will relaunch the show. At 10, the net's dr. vegas, with Rob Lowe, aims to be fun, light entertainment à la Nash Bridges. Facing the hard-core docs on NBC's Medical Investigation, call 'em both a 10 share, with better demos to NBC.

CBS will get a lot younger on Saturday, with The Amazing Race at 9 and crime drama repeats at 10, and the net will save a ton of dough on programming to boot. Sunday's solid lineup returns, with sophomore Cold Case looking to build. The movie at 9, while up this year, is still hit or miss, and Breslow notes that ABC and NBC both look a bit stronger from 9 to 11. Analysts agree that there are very few chinks in CBS' armor, with question marks primarily on Tuesday and Friday.

ABC

After another season in programming hell—down 13 percent in 18-49 and even worse in younger demos—ABC at least gets the sympathy vote. Props to programming boss Steve McPherson, who announced the new schedule 29 days into his tenure and cheerfully admitted that "it would be a lie to say I have a strategy" beyond putting on the best shows. The good news is that he's got three shows analysts like, plus some savvy scheduling moves. On the flipside, per one highly placed observer, "It's hard to imagine ABC has solved its problems unless something like Wife Swap is the next phenomenon."

Monday leads off with a resounding thud with The Benefactor, a reality series built around billionaire Mark Cuban handing out money. "Abysmal, with no direction at all," opines Breslow. On Tuesday, ABC has stacked its three strongest comedies from Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday: My Wife and Kids, George Lopez and According to Jim. "Cutting back to two sitcom nights is smart," says Breslow. "They were overextended, and this makes for a solid and stronger night." But those shows aren't heavy hitters, notes Brill: "It doesn't add up to much; it's an adequate night, better than NBC from 8 to 9:30." At 9:30, ABC adds Rodney, built around blue-collar stand-up Rodney Carrington, which no one likes.

Wednesday kicks off with Lost. Fifty people survive a crash on a deserted island in a kind of Castaway with hints of Predator. The reported $12 million, two-hour pilot looks stunning, but analysts think it would have been better as a movie. "Lost seemed just that," says one. At 9, The Bachelor is fading, but as ABC's top show after football, it provides a platform for Wife Swap at 10. That show could more accurately be called Trading Moms—and one sales source admits that its attention- grabbing title will cost the network ad dollars. But with both laughs and heart, analysts rate it a potential hit. "It's fantastic," says Sternberg, who would rather see it play earlier. "There may not be many share points available at 10, and a lot of kids might watch earlier." Although it would be nice to launch a drama there, McPherson notes that "it's got to be compatible; we've tried a bunch of things here that didn't work."

Thursday remains treacherous. Following Extreme Makeover at 8 is Life As We Know It, a sex-obsessed, coming-of-age drama that looks totally lost at 9. "Teenage boys aren't going to watch it," says Brill. "Things are thrown together on this night with no rhyme or reason." Friday's threadbare TGIF may be somewhat improved: Although the transplanted 8 Simple Rules is on its last legs, new 8:30 entrant Savages, featuring a house full of sloppy boys raised by a single dad, is what Sternberg calls "the best comedy I've seen this year." It ought to fit nicely with the slapstick Hope & Faith at 9. Saturday is a throwaway, with Wonderful World of Disney supposedly expanding to three hours, though Breslow expects ABC to get in the rerun business here.

Sunday has a keeper at 8 in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a solid 10 share that flows perfectly to ABC's best new drama, Desperate Housewives. Think American Beauty: The Series, a slightly soapy dramedy with a powerhouse femme cast led by Teri Hatcher and Felicity Huffman. Analysts agree that the show has promise. "It's got more broad appeal than Alias," says Breslow. "I see a lot of upside on Sunday" (The Practice: Fleet Street's struggles with Crossing Jordan notwithstanding). Once Alias returns in January, McPherson says, Housewives could shift to Friday at 10. "[ABC News president] Dave Westin and I will find a great place for 20/20," he promises. If Lost and Life As We Know It crater, the best case overall for ABC is growth Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday.

Fox

Down 9 percent this season in its target of adults 18-34—a demo it still leads, by the way —Fox covered a multitude of sins with the red-hot American Idol. Namely the utter collapse of its Monday and Friday lineups, and significant wear on its signature Sunday comedies. Now Fox says it is blowing up the rules of the TV business with year-round programming and new seasons launching in June, November and January. "I really like what Fox is doing," says Koerner. "Everyone else is putting a toe in the water, but they've got a plan to keep originals on the air all year long."

Fox is making virtue of necessity, trapped in a Major League Baseball deal that led to hundreds of millions of dollars in write-down and that wreaks havoc with fall launches and provides precious little promotional heft. But forget that elephant in the room. What is as yet unexplained about Fox's schedule is how advertisers are supposed to plan and buy it, how the network can afford to promote it, and how viewers are going to keep up with it. Fox hasn't abolished the rerun cycle, either, with double runs for scripted summer series. "The key is not how many repeats you have; it's where you run 'em and how you use 'em," says Sternberg.

With 17 new shows through January, it's no wonder analysts struggle to get a grip on this schedule. Of the summer series, Sternberg singles out reality show The Casino and hip-hop sitcom Method & Red as having potential. Wednesday comedy Quintuplets, starring Andy Richter as the dad of teenaged quints, seems to be trying for a bit of a Malcolm in the Middle feel. The keeper in the bunch might be The Jury, a drama from Tom Fontana of Homicide and Oz fame, on Tuesday (and repeating Friday) at 9. It's an edgy procedural focusing on the jury's deliberations, with a postscript showing whether the jury got it right. It already is winning critical hosannas as "too good for network TV."

The June premiere of North Shore, a serial about a family-run Hawaiian resort, leads the November lineup on Monday at 8—assuming, of course, its summer numbers are decent. At 9, The Swan 2 bids to become a lineup regular, a rarity for Fox reality. With The Swan lately doing 9 and 10 shares, there's plenty of potential. In January, Fox opens with a yet-to-be-finalized companion to The O.C. dubbed Athens. At 9, 24 moves over from Tuesday and will air all of its episodes in continuity, a momentum-building, HBO-style play pattern that analysts applaud. "Fans will come right back," says Brill. "It should be just fine." (ABC plans similar runs for NYPD Blue and Alias.)

Tuesdays in November lead off with The Billionaire, a reality skein featuring Virgin founder Richard Branson setting globe-trotting challenges for contestants. Buyers wonder how much of this show is format, how much is ego, and how much is is a copycat of Trump. At 9 comes the net's most promising new drama, House, a hard-hitting medical show starring Hugh Laurie as a witheringly intense doc. "It's very compelling and a little frightening," says Koerner. The show gets an Idol lead-in in January, which some find an odd fit.

A welter of Wednesday comedies includes stalwart That '70s Show, the two summer series and the much-moved Bernie Mac Show back at 9. In January, new comedy Related By Family moves in at 8:30, focusing on the schlubby lives of teenaged mall fry-cooks. "This family will be quickly disowned," says Brill. "Haven't they learned anything from The Grubbs and The Pitts?"

In its boldest move, Fox brings The O.C. to Thursday at 8, where analysts expect it to do serious damage all season, followed by Tru Calling, which finally gets a decent lead-in. "What else are young women watching?" asks Breslow, who sees nothing but upside on the night. Friday's revolving door includes November's The Next Great Champ, which seems a poor relation to NBC's classier The Contender; January's The Inside, about a young woman cop undercover in a high school; and Jonny Zero, about an ex-con undercover in clubland. Despite impressive pedigrees, these dramas are seen as the latest quick Friday casualties on Fox.

Saturday's long-running Cops and America's Most Wanted remain in the win column, while Sunday presents another shifting mass of sitcoms. Critic's pet Arrested Development gets the plum post-Simpsons spot at 8:30, then in January is promoted to 9. Also new in January: At 7 comes Kelsey Grammer Presents: The Sketch Show, a dumbed-down Laugh-In for the short-attention-span generation. At 9:30, there's American Dad, a spy spoof from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Analysts are eager to see the show but note that Family Guy never really broke through. Overall, Breslow sees potential improvement for Fox on Monday through Thursday in the fall.

WB

It's been a rotten year for the WB, with adults 18-34 down 19 percent, an MIA Thursday, and high-profile flops Tarzan and the never-aired Fearless. Ratings declines for Gilmore Girls and Smallville were worrisome, and drama repeats continued to nosedive. Perhaps worst of all, the WB completely missed the boat on reality while its young audience was lapping it up. The net points to rebounding ratings for Gilmore Girls and the emergence of One Tree Hill to show its dramatic core is alive and well.

The Frog Net trumpets stability by returning Monday and Tuesday intact, as well as Smallville on Wednesday at 8. After that, it's a bit of a jumble. The network announced a pair of nontraditional comedies for Wednesday at 9 and a juicy new drama, The Mountain (another family-run resort), for Thursday at 8. But Fox's move of red-hot The O.C. to lead off Thursday has led the WB to seriously consider flipping those two hours. Analysts encourage the net to make the move. "The Mountain has no prayer against The O.C. and will be wasted on Thursday," says Breslow. "And with its male-oriented, extreme-sports nature, it makes sense coming out of Smallville."

That leaves Thursday a black hole. Assuming the flip-flop, the night opens with Blue Collar Comedy, a sketch show with Jeff Foxworthy and fellow rednecks. Their hee-haw humor went over like a lead balloon in New York and seems to be the wrong tone for the WB's young-and-hip profile. "We have station strength in the South and Smallville is a very Middle American show," explains CEO Jordan Levin. "Look how well Reba does for us." Following this is Drew Carey's Green Screen Show, an improv comedy with an overlay of animation to flesh out the scenes. Green Screen gets plenty of votes as the worst new offering of the season. "It's important for us not to abandon young men," says Levin. "Jeff and Drew bring us credibility and awareness with men. We want to be in the comedy business, and nontraditional forms are a strong bet."

Rounding out Thursday at 9 is Studio 7, a reality/game hybrid from producer Michael Davies (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire); if it doesn't click, Levin is eyeing the slot for encore plays of his strongest new drama, Jack & Bobby. If the comedies indeed come to Thursday, Breslow dubs it "a total throwaway night. I would expect the same 2 and 3 shares they got last year."

On Friday, What I Like About You returns to the 8 o'clock slot, where Amanda Bynes' Nickelodeon fan base can find her, and Reba moves back up to 9, followed by Grounded For Life. New at 8:30 is Commando Nanny, based on reality producer Mark Burnett's babysitting experiences. While analysts agree that the comedy block's flow is improved, the shows aren't too strong.

Sunday starts with Steve Harvey's Big Time at 7, a variety hour Levin believes has got to do better than last season's 1-rated Smallville repeats. Following the durable Charmed is Jack & Bobby, an enticing drama about two high-school brothers, one of whom grows up to be president. Analysts agree this one is right in the WB's wheelhouse. "If Jack & Bobby holds Charmed's audience, I think they're in pretty good shape," says Sternberg. Levin looks for solid growth over last year's Tarzan, as well as gains on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

Since its serials repeat anywhere from 30 to 60 percent lower than originals, the network hopes to run its dramas in 10-week bursts, then spell them with backup dramas or reality before coming back with 10 more fresh episodes in a row. The program budget is up a hefty $50 million to $100 million, according to chairman Garth Ancier. "If they can limit repeats, their rating has to go up," says Sternberg. But for a network that missed the boat with reality, it's curious to see three hours of variety, sketch comedy and games without a true reality series ready to go. Levin has heavyweights Burnett, Davies, Mike Fleiss and Bruce Nash working on reality franchises.

UPN

For a network associated with such howlers as Homeboys in Outer Space and The Mullets, UPN earned respect from analysts for presenting one of the strongest new schedules. "They're going to make some inroads and the WB will decline," predicts Brill. The net is riding a hit with America's Next Top Model, a weblet-sized game-changer that shifts the competitive balance with WB. But even so, adults 18-34 were down 13 percent this season as Star Trek: Enterprise collapsed.

Monday's African-American sitcom block, successfully extended to Tuesday this season, is slightly juggled with the retirement of The Parkers and the addition of romantic comedy Second Time Around at 9:30. Analysts expect this machine to keep humming right through Tuesday's 8 o'clock hour. At 9, the network shifts gears with Veronica Mars, about a teenaged girl navigating high school and moonlighting with her dad as a private eye. Analysts don't see much flow or crossover from the comedies and consider this a weak link. UPN entertainment president Dawn Ostroff says the net weighed adding more comedy here but went with the strongest material: "She's a very empowered young lady and this is a mystery franchise at its core."

Wednesday has been UPN's stumbling block, as versions of Star Trek have impeded audience flow through the week. "I always said they need to have Wednesday to migrate viewers from Monday and Tuesday," says Brill. By booting Enterprise to Friday, the netlet opens up the night for female-skewing programs, its newfound strength. Top Model kicks off and provides the best lead-in to Kevin Hill, starring the magnetic Taye Diggs as a hotshot lawyer who inherits an infant. Analysts agree this is the network's best drama pilot ever.

Thursday, with WWE Smackdown!, remains one of the net's most profitable nights. And Friday should see improvement from the barely visible movie package as 9 o'clock plays host to Enterprise, whose (dwindling) fans will follow it anywhere. "We weren't going to grow with it on Wednesday, but we could on Friday," says CBS chairman Les Moonves, who oversees the net. Opening the night at 8 is a repeat of Top Model, freshened up with additional footage. Analysts see zero audience flow, but it's cost-effective and keeps the time period warm. Add it up, and UPN is looking at gains on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

No wonder Moonves says UPN may well add a sixth night of programming next year.

MONDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 8 PM


With reality bursting at the seams—six new hours will launch next fall and countless others are expected in midseason—it was only a matter of time before two or more would compete head to head. On that note, ABC will attempt to jumpstart Monday at 8—a time period with which it has had no success since MacGyver in 1992—with The Benefactor. Rather than having to eat maggots and cockroaches or flip cars for a paltry $50,000 on Fear Factor, The Benefactor features 16 contestants vying for a cool $1 million doled out by billionaire businessman Mark Cuban.

Although the financial payoff is considerably lower, the underrated Fear Factor controls the 8 o'clock hour (it helped send veteran CBS comedy Yes, Dear to the midseason benches) and offers NBC a solid lead-in to Las Vegas. With new Fox drama North Shore looking for young viewers, the WB's veteran 7th Heaven poised for a successful ninth season, and CBS and UPN sticking with comedies, the question is: Will Fear Factor fans abandon the hour to see money-hungry commoners looking to become rich? While it's easy to poke fun at Fear Factor for its sheer grotesqueness, it needs to be noted that ratings have remained rock-solid this season. With that in mind, Fear Factor will be impossible to beat.

TUESDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 9 PM

With former occupant The Guardian canceled because it skewed too old, CBS hopes that Clubhouse, a drama about a teenager who works as a batboy for a professional baseball team, will bring in younger viewers. UPN, meanwhile, plans to keep the momentum created by America's Next Top Model with Veronica Mars, the tale of a typical teenager who trades high school for law enforcement in the evening. Add to them The Jury, a new scripted hour from Fox, along with the WB's returning One Tree Hill, and suddenly the time period is huffing under the cumbersome weight of four dramas.

So, which show will have the advantage, Clubhouse or Veronica Mars? Although media buyers were optimistic about Clubhouse at CBS' upfront presentation, historically, not a single show with baseball as a backdrop (remember Steven Bochco drama Bay City Blues or sitcom Ball Four?) has survived past a single season. And if UPN keeps in mind that all Veronica Mars needs to do is maintain its Eve lead-in (it won't be able to match Top Model's ratings this season), the drama might have a longer shelf life than Clubhouse.

And one other thing: Will older men coming out of the returning NCIS really want to watch a coming-of-age drama about a teenaged boy? I doubt it.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 8 PM

In today's programming world, one hit show can ignite an entire network. UPN can thank America's Next Top Model for putting it on the map; when the reality competition is on, it often ranks third in the time period among women 18-34. After building Tuesday and successfully countering the WB's drama One Tree Hill this season, Top Model next fall takes on the WB's Smallville, which might need an added dose of kryptonite to survive against it.

Although the young-Clark Kent drama kept the WB viable on Wednesdays following the departure of Dawson's Creek, double-digit ratings losses from Tuesday to Wednesday mean that even Superman could be vulnerable. If women continue to find America's Next Top Model hard to resist—not to mention all the randy young men tuning in to watch a bunch of models strut down the runway—UPN could have its best Wednesday performance ever.

It's unlikely that Top Model will actually send Smallville to the TV graveyard. But there is every reason to believe that more viewers will tune in to the Wednesday 8 o'clock hour, thanks to a variety of programming that includes CBS' 60 Minutes, Fox's That '70s Show, ABC's new drama Lost and NBC's new drama Hawaii.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 10 PM

After more than a decade of dominance in the Wednesday 10 o'clock hour, NBC's Law & Order—the granddaddy of the crime- drama genre—may get knocked to second place by the formidable CSI spin-off CSI: NY on CBS. Law & Order may be responsible for killing off more shows (The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H. and Karen Sisco this season alone, as well as past-season shows MDs, Presidio Med, Gideon's Crossing, Courthouse) than any other drama, but its ratings have started to sag, and forensic crime solvers Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes may prove hard to resist.

The skeptics who think a third weekly hour of CSI is too much of a good thing should note that Law & Order has spawned two successful spin-offs and is about to launch a third. And though reality programming is widely considered the hot genre on TV, crime-solving dramas occupy nearly half the top 20 spots in all of television. So, it's safe to assume that CSI: NY, which was recently introduced to 23 million viewers on CSI: Miami, will attract a sizeable audience. But can it really beat the established gumshoes of Law & Order? Possibly. It doesn't help L&O that its longest-tenured cast member, Jerry Orbach, left the show for spin-off Trial by Jury. Whether Dennis Farina can fill those shoes remains to be seen.

THURSDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 8 PM

Although handicappers were busy predicting how Friends spin-off Joey would perform opposite the Cadillac of reality, CBS' Survivor, Fox shocked media buyers and audiences alike by announcing that it would move its sophomore serial The O.C. to the Thursday 8 o'clock time period come November. With a potential five or six episodes under its belt by the time The O.C. returns, Joey will have either proven it can satisfy the Friends crowd (based on the pilot, that doesn't seem a sure thing) or The O.C. will cash in on a trove of available 18-34-year-olds.

There's a track record of success for Fox on the night, too: Beverly Hills, 90210 held its ground in young viewers on Thursday opposite NBC's then-formidable Cheers. Even so, some diehard fans of Friends may still cling to Joey. And Survivor, it's safe to say, will attract its usual audience of around 21 million. Not helping NBC in the 8 o'clock hour is the increasingly grating presence of Joey lead-out Will & Grace, which has become a caricature of itself over the last season.

Of course, if neither Joey nor The O.C. nor Survivor tickles your fancy, there's always the relocated Extreme Makeover on ABC, one of the few bright spots on that network this season. And don't forget UPN's WWE Smackdown or the WB's new drama The Mountain.

FRIDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 8:30 PM

One interesting Friday battle is between biographical comedies. On one side is ABC's Savages, based on the real life of Oscar winner Mel Gibson. It will face off against the WB's Commando Nanny, which tells the tale of prolific reality producer Mark Burnett. You'd think there might be compelling stories here, but it's safe to say that those shows will do little to end the current comedy drought. Both are generic, both assume you don't have a brain, and both crank up the laugh track to try and milk as many chuckles as possible.

Since both have minimal lead-in support—Savages airs out of ABC's returning 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter, and Commando Nanny flows out of What I Like About You—neither comedy can be expected to attract much of an audience anyway. The sad reality is, if it's a good laugh or two you seek, Fox's competing World's Craziest Videos is probably a better option, although its run ends in November.

So, boiling it down to a choice between two mediocre shows, I'd give the edge to Savages, if only because of ABC's stronger station-distribution base. Until the networks come up with a comedy or two worth watching, the funniest thing on the small screen will be reality, even if half those shows have no intention of being funny.

SUNDAY NIGHT MATCHUPS / 9 PM

After three years of waiting for Alias to find an audience Sundays at 9, ABC has finally pushed the spy thriller off the fall slate (to return midseason) in favor of Desperate Housewives, the soapy tale of four less-than-perfect women in a seemingly idyllic town. At first glance, Desperate Housewives doesn't appear to have the makings of an immediate hit. But the success of Fox's The O.C. means the serialized drama genre could be poised for a comeback if ABC is patient and gives viewers enough time to find the drama. The WB, on the other hand, had a terrible season, as it watched all of its new shows save two—One Tree Hill and Steve Harvey's Big Time—fail in short order. Bravely, the network went right back to the same angst-ridden drawing board with Jack & Bobby, the tale of two young brothers (not the Kennedys), one of whom grows up to be president.

Although both shows cater to different audiences, Desperate Housewives has a distinct advantage in that it has Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, one of ABC's only hits this season, as its lead-in. While Charmed, on the WB at 8, also is no slouch, its frivolous feel just doesn't seem to make for a compatible lead-in to a serious dramatic series like Jack & Bobby. Which leads to the question: Is Jack & Bobby really a fit at all with the WB's young audience?