Nets no longer debating fall preems

Dates finally locked in for new season

The network’s long fall TV scheduling nightmare is over.

To the relief of TV execs everywhere, GOP presidential contender George W. Bush on Thursday agreed to three formal debates with Demo opponent Al Gore.

Deal hammered out between the campaigns and the Commission on Presidential Debates also calls for a veep debate between GOP contender Dick Cheney and Demo challenger Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.)

The presidential debates are slated for Tuesday, Oct. 3; Wednesday, Oct. 11; and Tuesday, Oct. 17. The vice presidential debate is on tap for Thursday, Oct. 5.

Announcement allowed the webs to finally lock in their fall premiere dates — just 2-1/2 weeks before the start of the season.

Fox, however, said that it won’t air the debates and instead will go forward with regular programming on those nights. The net’s Tuesday night lineup, including the new drama “Dark Angel,” will premiere Oct. 3 as scheduled. Network execs said that sister cabler Fox News Channel will carry the debates in their entirety.

Fox execs also note that the net could have carried only two of the debates anyway, due to baseball playoff coverage on Oct. 5 and Oct. 11.

Shuffling shows

CBS and ABC, which previously announced series debuts that conflicted with the debate commission’s proposed dates, scrambled Thursday to rejigger their launch plans.

“We normally lock in dates six to eight weeks before the start of the season,” said ABC senior VP of programming and scheduling Jeff Bader.

The networks need that lead time in order to place ads with day-and-date mention in most magazines and start promoting their launches on air. ABC, for example, managed to get the correct info in its new round of ads — which were due at 2 p.m. today — just in time.

With the debates finally locked in, the Alphabet web was forced to revise its debut schedule just one day after announcing its premiere dates, including the ad-free premiere of “Gideon’s Crossing.” CBS also pushed back some premieres on its sked, while NBC had pretty much avoided the debate dates when it announced its schedule last week.

The Oct. 3 and Oct. 5 dates, in particular, will delay most Tuesday and Thursday debuts during what’s usually considered premiere week.

ABC will still air “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” at 8 p.m. on Oct. 3, but will now push back the premieres of “Dharma & Greg” and “The Geena Davis Show” to the following Tuesday.

The Johnson & Johnson-sponsored premiere of “Gideon’s Crossing,” which had been announced for Oct. 11, will instead debut a night earlier before moving into its regular time period on Oct. 18.

“Gideon’s” isn’t the only Alphabet series pushed off Oct. 11 by the Al and George W. show. “Millionaire” will still air on the night at 8 p.m., but the series premiere of “Spin City” has also been pushed to Oct. 18. Returning drama “Once and Again,” meanwhile, returns Oct. 24.

‘Millionaire’ lead-in

As a result of the changes, all four debates will benefit from a “Millionaire” lead-in. That’s good news for ABC News, which will presumably get a big boost for its debate coverage courtesy Regis and friends.

“It’s going to be the highest-rated debates ever,” Bader said, tongue in cheek.

Over at the Eye, CBS’ Tuesday night lineup will now bow Oct. 10, except “JAG,” which will still return on Oct. 3 as a lead-in to the debates. The net’s Thursday sked has also been pushed back a week, from Oct. 5 to Oct. 12.

“Bette” and “Welcome to New York” will still debut Oct. 11, leading into the debates. The Wednesday night CBS movie will be preempted, but the network hadn’t even booked a title for the slot in case the debate happened.

And although NBC didn’t have to do make any serious changes, the net confirms it will bring Emmy Award-winning drama “The West Wing” back with a two-hour special on Oct. 4 (Daily Variety, Sept. 8) .

‘Law’ returns

“Law & Order” will return on Oct. 18, unless a baseball game pushes it back to Oct. 25.

Late in the day, the nonpartisan debate commission announced a greenlight for the debates following a three-way meeting with commission officials and representatives from the Bush and Gore campaigns.

Bush had stalled for weeks in agreeing to the debates, saying he’d prefer more casual venues. No presidential contender has refused the commission’s roster since the commission was formed in the late 1980s.

All debates will be 90 minutes long.

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