Webheads taking their gloves off

Preseason scuffle presages harsh reality of fall landscape

The new television season hasn’t officially started yet — but things are already getting nasty.

In a preseason skirmish indicative of what’s ahead starting Sept. 17, both CBS and NBC last week attempted to blunt the impact of the other’s hot new reality series. The Peacock scheduled an original “Fear Factor” opposite the Eye’s new “Amazing Race,” while CBS shot back by slotting a “Survivor”-packed episode of “Big Brother” against NBC’s “Lost.”

The result: mutually assured disappointment, with neither series striking Nielsen gold.

By pitting their big guns against each other, CBS and NBC decided it was better for both nets to fail than for either to succeed. It’s a pattern expected to play out many times over this coming season.

After a couple of years of boom times — powered by a wealth of dot-com ad dollars and nonfiction phenoms “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor” — network suites are increasingly filled with fear, loathing and even desperation.

Among the headaches:

  • The Big Six collectively took in nearly a billion dollars less in ad coin last spring. As a result, nets are downsizing wherever possible — cutting staff, reducing license fees, making fewer overall deals.

  • Sitcoms continue to sputter, with scribes so far unable to pump fresh life into a genre that just five years ago was booming. Case in point: NBC, which in 1997 had 18 comedies on its fall sked, will have eight this season.

    While a couple of the new frosh laffers are generating early critical buzz (“Undeclared,” “Scrubs,” “The Bernie Mac Show”), the big hit comedy that webs need so desperately right now doesn’t appear to be in sight.

  • As last week’s reality showdown demonstrates, counterprogramming has become virtually a lost art, making almost every timeslot a battleground. Rather than protect their assets, webs are launching direct assaults on their competitors (“Bob Patterson” vs. “Frasier,” “Titus” vs. “The Drew Carey Show,” “Smallville” vs. “Roswell”).

    Upping the fear factor a few more notches is that no one network dominates the landscape.

    Last season, the Big Four all finished within one Nielsen point of each other — the closest finish in more than two decades. Heading into fall, webheads have the sense that the ratings race is anybody’s game — making each programming move, each scheduling decision all the more important.

Ratcheting up a notch

“It’s pretty clear from the way last season ended that things look to be more competitive than ever before,” says Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow. “Any one show can make the difference.”

Indeed, all signs are that this year’s rating war will be fought in the trenches, with programmers pursuing victory by any means necessary.

“I like to compete,” says one net exec. “But when you play dirty, I’ll play dirty right back.”

Eye topper Leslie Moonves argues this season’s aggressive scheduling is the result of past successes.

“I don’t think anybody’s laying down anymore since there’s nothing that’s really impenetrable,” he says. ” ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ beat ‘Monday Night Football,’ ‘Providence’ came out of left field, ‘CSI’ came out of nowhere. People are feeling bolder because everything is up for grabs.”

Execs also have a new weapon in their battle against other networks’ established behemoths: reality programming.

Once confined to summer or midseason, unscripted fare has advanced to the point where webs feel comfortable launching reality skeins in the fall, right next to their shiny, new sitcoms and dramas.

“The reward-to-risk ratio is much higher,” says Moonves. “Because they cost less, there’s less risk involved (if a show fails). And if they work, there’s a big upside, as seen with ‘Survivor.'”

Last winter, the Eye turned Thursday nights upside down by pitting “Survivor: The Australian Outback” against “Friends.” To the shock of most industry insiders, “Friends” won.

Now, CBS is hoping to breathe life into its moribund Wednesday sked, slotting “The Amazing Race” opposite NBC’s powerhouse drama “The West Wing.” Similarly, Fox execs are betting they’ll finally find a pulse on Thursday nights by skedding “Temptation Island 2” at 9.

Indeed, except for UPN, every net has at least one hour of unscripted programming skedded to bow this fall.

“There’s a ton of reality on this season,” confirms NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker. “There’s probably too much of it on — we always kill the golden goose.”

ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairman Stu Bloomberg, who agrees there’s a glut of reality this fall, predicts a shakeout.

“The good ones, those that are distinct, will stay; the weaker ones will fade away,” he says. “The challenge now is to come up with the next kind of reality show. Maybe it’s not just wall-to-wall visceral reaction. Maybe we need a little more emotion.”

Some would argue that what the networks really need are a couple of very successful new comedies to help revive a genre that’s clearly in a slump. While it’s too soon to tell if those hits are lurking among this season’s contenders, most insiders aren’t holding their breaths.

“There’s going to be a (‘Malcolm in the Middle’-type hit) that will come this year or next year,” predicts 20th Century Fox TV prexy Dana Walden. “There will be a breakthrough that makes the kind of noise that reinvigorates the genre. The half-hour form is ripe for reinvention right now.”

When and how that transformation will come is anybody’s guess. Despite ever-more sophisticated research tools, webheads seem more in the dark than ever about what viewers what.

Just a year ago, most TV types would have told you that “The Fugitive,” “Bette” and “The Geena Davis Show” were about to become huge hits, while “Yes, Dear” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” would be gone before Christmas.

Studios USA programming prexy Sarah Timberman believes studios and networks must get better about trusting their guts — and the instincts of their writers and producers.

“The shows that are generating the most excitement this season are the ones you don’t feel were developed by committee,” she says. “The shows that promise to break out are those where there’s an energetic, undiluted point of view.

“With the vast universe of available programming choices, it’ll be the shows that have that pure voice that will last.”

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