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Mr. TV: Calm Before the ...

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With just one week to go before the broadcast networks unveil their prime-time plans for fall 2010 (and beyond), this is the calm before the storm. Fox announces first next Monday, with the other four broadcast networks and Turner Entertainment—which boldly decided a few years ago that it wanted to be treated like a full-on network—jockeying for coverage.

As always, there are a few ground rules you need to remember. First, if any of the networks (Fox, in particular) decides to announce what it will be airing in midseason, take it with a grain of salt. Since no network programming exec knows exactly what will happen until the initial ratings results are in, how can they definitively tell you what their plans are for January and beyond?

Secondly, while the networks would like you to think everything on the lineup sounds wonderful, what they tell you is not etched in stone.  The scheduling is always subject to change. And, third, upfront week always signals the end of the “traditional” (September through May) TV season. I hope you don’t mind repeats and reality.

While I would hope that one of the broadcast nets will step up and actually program Saturday prime time next season, it’s not going to happen.  But deteriorating Friday is not about to be abandoned, and chances are, CBS will populate the evening with one or two new scripted dramas.

CBS is likely to unveil the fewest changes  with its boldest move, perhaps, finding a new home for aging CSI. Unlike NBC, which never knows when to exit the party, so to speak, CBS will be heading into the 2010-11 season aware that the CSI franchise is not the force it once was. As for the Charlie Sheen contract dispute, I would not be surprised to see Two and a Half Men off the schedule and The Big Bang Theory in its place if Sheen does not come to his senses.  Rule of thumb: Don’t mess with CBS president and CEO Les Moonves.

ABC’s main scheduling priorities are finding a replacement for Lost and an 8 p.m. anchor for its Wednesday sitcom block. Mainstays like Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives will be back. But both have peaked, and the network is hoping one of its new entries will arrive with the same kind of early buzz. While neither eroding hour is likely to be moved, Sunday mainstay Brothers & Sisters could be relocated to another evening. Naturally, Dancing With the Stars will be front and center in the early part of the week.

You won’t see NBC shipping Jay Leno back to prime time anytime soon. So, the focus will remain on finding the next generation of must-not-flee TV. The Thursday sitcom block will likely remain intact, but none of the four half hours have breakout potential. And the network is hoping the proposed Law & Order set in Los Angeles has the same kind of pizzazz NCIS: LA has provided CBS. Given how the Law & Order franchise is fading, you have to wonder why NBC is bothering to expand it. Sunday Night Football will certainly help, but expected renewals for fading returnees like Chuck and Heroes will not reverse NBC’s troubled fortunes.

Fox is never the same in fourth quarter without American Idol (which will certainly spiral downward faster than it already has, now that Simon Cowell is departing). And there’s little reason to believe we’ll see another fall edition of summer favorite So You Think You Can Dance. Excluding mainstays Cops and America’s Most Wanted on Saturday, chances are there will be programming changes on Fox every night of the week.

Rounding off the broadcast networks is The CW, which may seem stable after announcing that five scripted dramas and perennial America’s Next Top Model will be returning next season. But 90210 has never really caught on, Top Model is losing steam and ratings for Smallville pale to what they once were. Since it’s time for aging One Tree Hill to call it quits, my guess is recent entry Life Unexpected, which the critics have supported, will be granted a second season.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.