Web skeds: Slip cover?

Unable to stem erosion, nets look inhouse for profits

NEW YORK — It’s somehow fitting that CBS’ lavish Tavern on the Green party following its fall schedule unveiling May 22 at Carnegie Hall was so rudely interrupted by news of a massive corporate shakeup.

The abrupt resignation of CBS TV and Cable CEO Peter Lund last week injected a dose of reality into the glitzy, star-studded affair.

As hard as the six broadcast networks tried to convey a glowing image of strength and stability to advertisers over the past two weeks, more nasty truths kept bubbling up and undermining their efforts.

The annual New York sked presentations coincided with the end of the current broadcast season, and once again the nets faced what seems to be an unstoppable collective ratings slide. Few feel confident that the scheduling moves announced will dramatically improve things next season.

Road map needed

With nearly 40 new shows on the fall schedule, many veteran shows moving to new timeslots and the two netlets WB and UPN expanding to new nights, viewer confusion is almost a given.

“Fragmentation is just going to continue to chip away,” said Andy Kaplan, executive vice president of the Columbia TriStar TV group.

The proliferation of new shows — especially of similar-looking shows — is also a headache for programmers.

“There are going to be over 65 sitcoms on the air next season,” said CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves. “It really bugs me when we’re trying to staff up these shows. The talent just isn’t there.”

On top of those woes, the webs are facing a flood of complaints from top producers who believe some of the nets’ scheduling moves were driven by a desire to put shows the nets themselves own in the best timeslots.

Aiming for ownership

NBC, for instance, owns all or part of five of the eight new shows on its schedule, including “Union Square,” which gets a cushy slot between “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” and “Working,” which will air after “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

“There are a number of frustrated and disappointed producers this year,” said Sandy Grushow, president of 20th Century Fox TV.

“Partly that’s driven by network ownership informing scheduling decisions more so than at any time in the past. Shows that are doing well in the ratings are sent packing to a new time period to make way for shows owned by the networks. I believe that played a role in CBS’ decision to move ‘Chicago Hope.’ ”

That medical drama is moving from Mondays to Wednesdays, and in its place is the new drama “Brooklyn South” from Steven Bochco, with whom CBS has an exclusive production deal.Even some network entertainment chiefs question whether some of their scheduling strategies will, in the end, drag everyone down.

Current top dog NBC, for instance, is being extremely aggressive in attacking its rivals head-on at their points of strength.

Playing rough

By moving its hit “3rd Rock From the Sun” to Wednesdays, where it will battle ABC’s latest sitcom success, “Drew Carey,” NBC may prevent “Drew” from achieving runaway numbers. At the same time, it could also sacrifice some ratings for “3rd Rock,” which would probably perform better against weaker competition on another night.

NBC also blew out its Monday movie and plugged in four women’s sitcoms in an effort to take on CBS’ comedy stronghold on that same night.

“NBC’s strategy is to hurt the other guy rather than help themselves,” Moonves said.

CBS, however, is being equally aggressive on Fridays. The web snagged two longtime sitcoms from ABC’s “TGIF” lineup and is launching its own version of family night.

In addition to “Chicago Hope,” CBS is also moving Monday workhorse “Murphy Brown” to Wednesday night. These are bold moves, because every time a hit show changes timeslots, some viewers get lost in the transition.

Ironically, the once edgy, risk-taking Fox probably has the least adventurous schedule, with the churn at the other webs making Fox Entertainment Group president Peter Roth look the most serene.

Fox is keeping four nights of its schedule entirely intact, and is adding just five new shows, the least of all the majors.

Fox’s only substantial tinkering is on Thursdays, where three shows will be introduced. The web is staying with its philosophy to counterprogram NBC’s Thursday yuppie comedy juggernaut with programs aimed at black viewers.

Oddly, though, the web is taking the top two shows in black households, “Living Single” and “New York Undercover,” off the air. Again, an inhouse 20th drama, “413 Hope Street,” is replacing “New York Undercover.”

Cleaning house

If Fox was the network of stability this year, ABC is undergoing the most change. With 10 new shows and no series older than a year leading off any night of the week, the Alphabet web will face another uphill battle this coming season.

There’s one other thorn in the side of the networks that’s emerging from this scheduling season.

Some web execs got stuck with commitments to producers on shows they didn’t in the end want. Over the next few weeks, the networks and studios will be doing some hefty negotiating over penalty fees.

ABC will be paying millions to Warner Bros. to cease production on “Lois & Clark,” which it had already renewed, despite poor ratings. The web also ordered as many as 25 episodes of “Grace Under Fire,” which won’t be on the air this fall. Other shows will probably get on the air because of prior commitments rather than quality.

“Pre-commitments are awfully tough,” said Moonves, who lost a lot of money this season on the deal-driven “Ink,” toplining Ted Danson. “When you’re handicapped with shows early, you’re often surprised at what you come out with at the end.”

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