ABC signs only four new players

Fall schedule to invest in 'Millionaire'

Remember the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”?

In case you’re still reeling from Richard’s surprise million-dollar victory on “Survivor” this summer, here’s a quick refresher: Regis. Phone-a-friend. Monochromatic ties. Fastest finger. Lifelines. “Is that your final answer?”

The program that tore up the network TV rulebook still has legs, even if it’s not quite the phenomenon it used to be. Airing four nights a week this fall, “Millionaire” is the centerpiece of an ABC schedule that will almost certainly see big gains vs. last year, before the gamer became a regular series.

“We’d have to see a dramatic shift (in viewership) for it not to be an improvement over what we were doing last year,” says Jeff Bader, the newly promoted executive vice president of ABC Entertainment.

But Bader stops short of declaring a season victory.

“I don’t think anyone is going to be complacent at all this year,” he says. “We have to be very aggressive. I don’t think it’s fait acompli that we end up No. 1. We’ll go out there with our guns blazing.”

Still, even ABC’s rivals believe the Alphabet has at least one more year at the top spot.

“I still think it’s ABC’s year,” says CBS Television prexy/CEO Leslie Moonves, although the Eye–which boasts the Super Bowl and “Survivor II” next season–will prove to be formidable competition. “I think their strategy of airing four ‘Millionaires’ is a smart one.”

Steve Sternberg, TN Media senior vp for broadcast research, also predicts another victorious year for ABC.

“‘Millionaire’ probably has just one good season left, and by smartly scheduling it four times a week, it will burn out in a blaze of glory,” he says. “The show is a money machine, and even losing a third of its audience would still place it among the top-rated series.”

The Alphabet web’s fall sked could also serve as a prototype for how the networks might rethink their strategies if an actor and writer strike does take place next year.

A full ten out of 22 hours consists of non-scripted programming. And only seven hours of ABC’s schedule this fall is actual scripted series.

The heavy reliance on “Millionaire” allowed ABC to schedule only four new series on its fall slate, believed to be the net’s smallest crop of freshman entries ever.

“Fortunately, we can focus our resources on fewer shows,” Bader says. “That’s half the number of new shows we had last year. Obviously we can do more for each of the new shows than we have ever done before.”

Of its new series, the hour long drama “Gideon’s Crossing,” starring Andre Baugher, has received the most positive notices. But “Gideon’s” must go up against NBC’s workhorse “Law & Order”–not an easy assignment.

Laffer “The Geena Davis Show” probably has the best hit potential among ABC’s freshman entries. “Geena” airs at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays following “Dharma & Greg” and opposite NBC’s unproven new entry “DAG.”

ABC’s biggest challenge this season exists on Friday night, where the network will attempt to schedule older-skewing comedies on a night that’s traditionally been for teenybopper offerings.

“It’s a night we see a lot of upside potential,” Bader says. “We’re obviously paying a lot of attention to that.”

The night’s new sitcoms, “The Trouble With Normal” and “Madigan Men,” haven’t received many favorable notices from critics and media buyers, however.

“We’re not expecting great things from this new comedy lineup, but it should do OK among adults 18 to 34,” Sternberg says.

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