TV’s Midseason of Discontent

NEW YORK Looking for a spark in a mundane prime-time television season, the broadcast networks this month will introduce more than a dozen new shows and shift programming in several timeslots. Overall, 16 percent of the schedule is being revised, and buyers are worried.

Media-agency executives wonder whether a flurry of changes might only confuse viewers. “It’s going to take a while for viewers to get a handle on what all these new shows are about and when they are on and where some of the shows they are used to watching in a certain time period are being relocated to,” said Laura Caraccioli, vp/director of SMG Entertainment. She added that the networks are tinkering more heavily one-third of the way into the season than they have in the past.

The networks know they must do something to stop audience defections to cable. All the networks, save the WB, are flat or down in viewers in most key demographic categories, and hope to lure audiences back by spicing up their schedules.

Looking at the performance of specific shows is potentially even more alarming for the networks. Ten of CBS’ returning programs are down in household and 18-49 ratings, while eight of NBC’s returning shows are down in those categories.

With all the changes, media-agency research departments are hard-pressed to predict household shares for the reshuffled shows and for new programming in the coming month. Monday is particularly difficult to call, as ABC attempts to avoid last season’s 35 percent ratings drop when Monday Night Football went off the air. The network is moving its top drama, The Practice, from 10 p.m. Sunday to 9 p.m. Monday, beginning tonight, to serve as the centerpiece for two new dramas, Veritas at 8 p.m. and Miracles at 10 p.m.

Steve Sternberg, evp of research at Magna Global USA, said moving The Practice to that slot is “a gamble,” since it is now up against the CBS hit Everybody Loves Raymond, NBC’s solid Third Watch and Fox’s new reality show, Joe Millionaire. Marc Goldstein, CEO of Mindshare North America, disagreed. “At some point in time, a network needs to experiment to try to turn things around, so you try it,” he said.

ABC’s two new shows are also in tough time periods. Veritas must battle the WB’s hit 7th Heaven, while Miracles is up against NBC’s Crossing Jordan and CBS’ CSI: Miami. Buyers believe Veritas, Miracles and Joe Millionaire will each garner an 8 share in their time periods, not a sterling endorsement for any of them. They also forecast The Practice to capture a solid 12 share in its new timeslot (it currently delivers a 14 on Sunday).

On Tuesday, Fox is bringing back its summer hit American Idol at
8 p.m., starting Jan. 21. Researchers estimate the show will average a 10 share-lower than its competition, ABC comedies 8 Simple Rules and According to Jim and CBS drama JAG, but still solid.

On Wednesday, ABC will roll out The Bachelorette at 9 p.m. and Celebrity Mole at 10 p.m. The Bachelorette is projected to do a 12 household share. The WB is moving Angel from Sunday to Wednesday at 9 p.m. CBS is shifting 60 Minutes II to 9 p.m. to make room for Star Search, its new variety show, which will air at 8 p.m.

Star Search will air again on Thursday at 8 p.m. (filling in for Survivor) and is projected to do an 11 share against NBC’s Friends (24). The WB, meanwhile, is turning its Thursday into a reality night, with High School Reunion at 8 p.m. and Surreal Life to follow at 9:30 p.m. Both are projected to get only 2 shares.

Friday at 8 p.m. will see the most change, with NBC introducing Mister Sterling, CBS airing a second fresh episode of Presidio Med, and Fox moving Fastlane from 9 p.m. Wednesday. Sterling

is projected to do an 11 share, Presidio Med a 9 and Fastlane a 6. At 10 p.m., CBS will replace the canceled Robbery Homicide Division with Queens Supreme, which researchers project will do a 10 share against NBC’s Law & Order: SVU (19).

Highlighting the changes on the weekend, NBC will pre-empt its Saturday Night Movies to air repeats of Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU from 8-10 p.m., and will bring back Meet My Folks at 10 p.m., which is projected to do a 10 share. Sunday sees the debut on ABC of Dragnet at 10 p.m. It’s projected to garner a 9 share against NBC’s Boomtown (10), although in February NBC will begin airing its short-run series Kingpin in that slot (projected to do a 13 share.)