Star light, star bright

Name game hot this season

Last season, the networks turned to established TV stars such as Michael J. Fox and Bill Cosby to cut through the clutter of 40 new shows. Despite mixed results, including the failure of Ted Danson’s CBS starrer “Ink,” the webs are once again looking to big names for a boost.

Ironically, NBC, the network that most loudly criticized the star strategy last season has embraced the most stars for this fall. NBC has given a sizable 22-episode commitment to Paramount’s sitcom “Jenny,” starring MTV maven Jenny McCarthy. The Sunday sitcom was poorly received by advertisers, meaning NBC could get stuck with a pretty large lemon.

On the other hand, NBC’s new Thursday night sitcom “Veronica’s Closet,” which marks “Cheers” veteran Kirstie Alley’s return to series TV, is the one new show advertisers predict will be a hit this fall. The show is produced by the creators of another NBC Thursday phenom, “Friends.”

The Peacock web is also launching a new Friday drama “Players,” starring the rapper Ice-T, and a new Wednesday sitcom with Tony Danza.

The other networks aren’t staying away from stars either. CBS has new comedies with Bob Newhart (“George & Leo”), Gregory Hines (“The Gregory Hines Show”) and Bronson Pinchot (Meego”), well as a drama with former “NYPD Blue” star David Caruso (“Michael Hayes”).

ABC and Fox have the fewest marquee names of the Big 4, although the Alphabet web has one sitcom with Annie Potts and Tim Curry (“Over the Top”) and another with “Saturday Night Live” alum Kevin Nealon (“Hiller & Diller”). Fox, which is launching just five new shows, has Thursday comedy “Rewind” with “Happy Days” and “Charles in Charge” vet Scott Baio.

Even UPN and the WB are getting into the game. The WB is launching a new Sunday sitcom with Tom Arnold and Ed McMahon called “The Tom Show,” while UPN has the Tuesday sitcom “Hitz” with Andrew Dice Clay.”

Another trend resurfacing for a second year in a row is poaching. Five returning shows will switch networks when they air this fall. NBC’s canceled sitcom “Something So Right” is moving to ABC, and the Peacock web’s canceled nine-year reality series “Unsolved Mysteries” was picked up by CBS.

CBS has also snagged two of ABC’s longtime TGIF shows: “Family Matters” and “Step by Step” for its own version of a Friday family lineup, which will go head-to-head with ABC. Another of ABC’s canceled TGIF sitcoms, “Clueless,” heads to UPN this season.

The industry is mixed on whether these shows will work after they change webs. History has shown that few shows do significantly better in the ratings after hopping networks. However, ABC believes that “Something So Right” may be a better fit on ABC than NBC, and CBS thinks the Friday comedies will help the network bring in some badly needed young viewers, even if they fare worse than on ABC.

Popular preachers

Several other programming themes will pop up quite a few times this fall. Last year, the theme was teachers. This fall, it’s preachers. The ABC drama “Nothing Sacred” and the UPN sitcom “Good News” join returning ABC sitcom “Soul Man” and “Seventh Heaven” as the clergy foursome. The ABC TGIF sitcom “Teen Angel” also joins CBS’ “Touched by an Angel,” as shows with religious themes take off.

Single dads are also hot. Four new shows deal with divorced or widowed fathers, “The Gregory Hines Show,” “The Tony Danza Show,” “Meego,” and The Tom Show.”

The third big programming trend this fall features former criminals who fight crime. The WB drama “Three,” NBC’s “Players” and CBS’ “Dellaventura” all deal with ex-cons turned crimebusters.

There’s one big scheduling trend this fall. Despite calls from Washington for a return to the TV family hour, shows that were designed as 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. shows will be airing earlier in the evening.

Dick Wolf’s edgy drama “Players” for instance, will air at 8 p.m. Fridays on NBC, while the time travel/cop drama “Timecop” will also air at 8 pm. on ABC. “Murphy Brown” is moving from 9 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and ABC’s “Spin City” moves from 9:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. NBC’s racy “Men Behaving Badly” will also move to 8 p.m. Sundays.

The David Caruso drama “Michael Hayes” will air at 9 p.m., where few such dramas have worked other than on Fox. ABC will also air the drama “Cracker” at 9 p.m. Thursdays. Both shows were designed more as 10 p.m. shows.

Some key battles are shaping up between hit shows. One of the main battle zones is Monday night, where NBC has dumped its Movie of the Week and will go with four female-skewing sitcoms. The new lineup is seen as a direct challenge to CBS’ longtime Monday comedy franchise. Friday night will also be a bloodfest, as CBS and ABC duke it out for kids and teens.

But the biggest war is likely to be on Wednesday night, where NBC has moved the hit comedy “3rd Rock From the Sun” up against ABC’s hit sitcom “Drew Carey” at 9 p.m. Also competing in that hour are Bryant Gumbel’s bowing newsmag on CBS, “Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel,” the drama “Party of Five” on Fox and “Star Trek: Voyager” on UPN. An uncloseted “Ellen” also airs at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC.

No Wednesday worries

Christopher Keyser, executive producer of “Party of Five,” said he’s not worried about the stiff Wednesday competition: “There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “We have our audience now.”

In fact, “Party of Five” is one of the show’s that best reflects Fox’s overall strategy for this fall: stability. Fox showed tremendous patience with “Party of Five,” which was a critical darling but lagged in the ratings its first couple of seasons. “Three years with all the difficulties, and they stood by us,” Keyser said. Fox is keeping all of its returning shows, like “Party,” in the same timeslots next season.

If Fox’s strategy is stability, ABC’s is change. ABC will unveil 10 new series this fall, and none of this fall’s 8 pm. shows were in those timeslots last season. NBC, meanwhile, is going with all comedy, all the time. The Peacock web will air 18 comedies, including six new ones.

CBS is mixing bold moves on Friday with more cautious counter-programming on Thursday and Tuesday. On Thursday, the Eye web looks to older-skewing dramas that don’t overlap with NBC’s hip comedy lineup. On Tuesdays, CBS is doing the same and avoiding the “Frasier”—“Home Improvement” crossfire.

UPN and the WB will both add a fourth night of programming midseason. UPN is adding a Thursday movie, while the WB will place one new drama and an established show on Tuesdays.

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