To preview, or not to preview. That’s the question for network programmers in an increasingly crowded broadcast environment, with a record 42 new primetime series – on six different services – vying for attention this fall.

In a departure, the Big Three webs have decided to hold most of their new program introductions until mid-September. In the past they experimented with previews and early launches in an effort to generate audience sampling vs. established series repeats.

There are, however, widely divergent views on the value of previewing shows before the competition arrives or in coveted time periods behind established hits – with millions of dollars riding on each new series for the network and studio.

Meanwhile, the early hit-’em-where-they ain’t strategy was adopted this year by the emerging UPN and WB Networks, which both introduced shows in August in order to get a jump on the Sept. 18 new-season starting gun.

In addition, while ABC, CBS and NBC sat back and largely threw repeats against the Primetime Emmy Awards on Fox Broadcasting Co., the WB Network opted to use the Sept. 10 evening – and the absence of Fox’s youth-oriented Sunday regulars – to launch its Sunday night lineup.

When you’re the new netlet on the block, you can’t afford to observe such formalities, especially with the distribution handicaps UPN and the WB face.

“The period of growth for Fox every year was the summer,” explains WB Network chief exec Jamie Kellner, adding that new networks “tend to be sort of countercyclical to the more established networks” in their viewing patterns – building in the summer, then trying to weather the storm as the major webs get sampled. Kellner acknowledges that there’s a trade-off to launching early, in that “you run a little thin later in the season” when it comes to original programming.

“I like the idea of getting out early,” says UPN president of entertainment Michael Sullivan, adding that his fledgling outfit will increase its back orders from nine to 12 or 13 additional episodes if they perceive a show to be working.

Sullivan adds that there may be sampling opportunities for the new networks as well during early October because of the extra round of Major League Baseball playoffs, which don’t figure to do particularly well ratings-wise.

What UPN wants to avoid is the teeth of network competition – such as the November, February and May sweeps periods, when major movies, miniseries and special episodes are on display. That’s why UPN will introduce its third night in March, hoping to capitalize on a network lull between the two major sweeps periods.

The established networks have played the early premiere game and each seemed to settle on its own launch formula.

ABC for example, will introduce its Saturday night sitcoms “The Jeff Foxworthy Show” and “Maybe This Time” on a Tuesday and Friday, respectively, while the Thursday dramas “The Monroes” and “Murder One” each will get airings (in the latter case, three of them) in “NYPD Blue’s” Tuesday slot before being asked to take on “Seinfeld” and “ER.”

By contrast, NBC officials have stated that shows eventually have to sink or swim in their assigned time periods and as a result are premiering most new series in their regular time periods. NBC also has returned to the notion of an old-fashioned premiere week, introducing the lion’s share of its shows during the Sept. 18-24 period.

CBS has gone with a mix of the two strategies, launching some shows outside their time periods, while asking most to establish themselves without the benefit of such a preview. That includes the new Wednesday dramas “Central Park West” and “Courthouse” and four new Friday night series.

Fox Broadcasting has scattered its premieres from late August through Oct. 1, enjoying some early success with its Thursday roster. UPN started its season Aug. 28, while the WB previewed “Kirk” on Aug. 23.

Oftentimes, sampling generated by early premieres against network repeats has proved to be short-lived. Short-lived too are big audiences scored for shows introduced in protected time periods before they challenge an established hit – the strategy guiding ABC’s scheduling of “Murder One.”

Not surprisingly, both UPN and the WB were eager to tout whatever sampling they could muster with their early premieres, since there were few ratings highlights for the new services in their first season.

UPN’s results for “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Nowhere Man” did drop from their initial ratings salvo, but Sullivan attributes part of that to the heavy male competition provided by “Monday Night Football.”

The WB has generated some growth thanks to its acquisition of “Sister, Sister,” a one-time ABC comedy, leading a more family-friendly Wednesday lineup that scored record numbers by the netlet’s standards with its early premiere. Still, pundits see the real challenge as whether either new netlet can hold up in the face of original competition.

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