January TV preems teeming

Midseason's big bang includes nearly 20 projects

The calendar reads January, but it’s going to feel a lot more like September in TV land this week.

While networks have always used the first month of the year to begin rolling out midseason shows — taking advantage of the cold weather and the relative paucity of major feature releases — 2003 is kicking off with an abnormally big bang of series and season premieres. Indeed, the week ahead will see broadcast and cable nets launching nearly 20 big-ticket projects — compared with just three notable events for the same frame a year ago.

The roster of rollouts ranges from the premieres of much-hyped new dramas such as NBC’s “Mister Sterling” and CBS’ “Queens Supreme” to the return of HBO’s “Oz” and sizzling sophomores “The Shield” (FX) and “The Dead Zone” (USA).

Reality will also be well-repped, with five nets bowing seven different unscripted skeins: ABC’s “The Bachelorette” and “Celebrity Mole,” Fox’s “Joe Millionaire,” the Eye’s “Star Search Live,” WB’s “High School Reunion” and “The Surreal Life” and Bravo’s “Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within.”

GSN jams with ‘Cram’

Even smaller outlets are getting into the act: Game Show Network is premiering “Cram,” while miniweb Pax launches comic quizzer “Dirty Rotten Cheater.”

What’s more, after several weeks of preemptions and repeats, almost all of TV’s existing hits will be back with original episodes for the first time since early or mid-December. And shows including Fox’s “Fastlane” will get relaunched in new timeslots.

“It’s basically a mini-premiere week,” said CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl, noting that the barrage of new and returning shows will no doubt claim some casualties.

“It’s difficult to support that many new shows,” he said. “Some will probably be left out in the cold.”

Several factors are behind this winter’s insanely crowded field:

  • The short lifespan of ABC’s three frosh dramas, as well as the net’s decision not to program a movie in place of “Monday Night Football,” means the Alphabet has some serious holes to fill this month. That’s upped the overall number of midseason entries for the nets.

  • Cable has often used off-peak months such as January and June to launch new skeins, but for the most part, the Big Six didn’t take notice. Buzzworthy skeins such as “Dead Zone,” “Monk” and “Shield” are now competing for publicity and promotion time in the media universe (even if their raw tune-in levels are relatively small).

  • Reality has taken its place alongside sitcoms and dramas as a full-fledged TV genre.

But most unscripted skeins unspool over six- and 13-week frames — vs. the typical nine-month season for a “Friends” or “CSI.” As a result, networks find themselves launching and relaunching reality shows several times during the course of the year, adding to the January crunch.

The same critics who rail against TV’s practice of lumping so many premieres into two or three weeks during the fall will no doubt pounce on the webs for scheduling so much fresh fare in one January week.

Little choice for nets

Webheads, however, argue they don’t really have much of a choice.

“If you wait until one or two weeks into January, you’ll (launch a show) and then find yourself right in the middle of the February sweep,” said Fox scheduling vet Preston Beckman. “It’s better to give these shows a running start.”

What’s more, some industry observers don’t buy the argument that the field is too crowded with premieres this week.

NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker, for example, isn’t worried that cable bows like “The Shield” second season premiere will steal any thunder from a network launch.

“I don’t think the audience pays as much attention to those cable shows as the press does,” he said.

And Beckman argues that in a zillion-channel universe, there simply aren’t any wide-open weeks or months for unveiling new product.

Full speed ahead

“You can either play the game paralyzed or play the game,” he said. “If you sit back and say you can’t premiere something because of this show or that show, you won’t get anywhere.”

That same logic is breaking down other long-held network wisdom, like the rule against launching new shows in sweeps months.

NBC will double pump midseason skeins “Kingpin” and “A.U.S.A.” in next month’s February sweeps, for example. And while the pilot for CBS’ “My Big Fat Greek Life” hasn’t even been taped yet, bowing the skein in February — around the same time as the DVD release of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and the Eye’s Grammycast — seems a logical move.

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