Timeslot puzzles tough to solve

Technologies won't make skedding gurus go the way of the dinosaur

Big stars or little-known actors, serials or procedurals, comedy or drama. Quality helps but, alas, there’s no secret ingredient for launching a hit show.

Yet most in the TV business agree that a well-placed timeslot may be the closest thing to a deal-breaker — both in a positive and negative way — when a series tries to gain traction in the crowded fall landscape.

Over the past few years, however, TiVo and other DVR devices have changed the equation, where consumers are merrily blind to the countless hours of consternation and bickering that goes on in network boardrooms trying to find that perfect timeslot.

So will TiVo — and other forms of technologies, i.e., iPods, cell phones, and other online options to view programming — make scheduling gurus go the way of the dinosaur?

Not so fast, says Mitch Metcalf, exec VP of program planning and scheduling at NBC.

“Our death has been greatly exaggerated,” Metcalf explains. “It’s one of the most exciting times to do this job because of all the change in the TV industry. We’re embracing that change and not sticking our heads in the sand. … It still comes down to creating hits. Once you’ve created those hits, DVRs are wonderful devices.”

Metcalf and other programmers, including Fox’s Preston Beckman and CBS’ Kelly Kahl, agree that while TiVo has given viewers more power to create their own schedules, the vast majority of consumers still rely on the schedule the networks hand them.

“We still think scheduling is pretty important,” says Kahl, who only had to fit in four new shows this season — “The Class,” Shark,” “Jericho” and “Smith” — into the Eye’s already solid lineup. “A show has to reach critical mass before people TiVo it. Our job is to get eyeballs and get it sampled.”

Beckman concurs. “Before you decide to TiVo something, you have to be motivated to TiVo it,” says the Fox programmer, whose stellar scheduling helped raise the profile on such seminal NBC skeins as “Seinfeld” and “Frasier” while he was at the Peacock during the 1990s.

After the networks announced their skeds at the May upfronts, the big headline out of New York became the Thursday night slugfest among CBS’ “CSI” (the most-watched scripted show), ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” (possibly the biggest buzz show not titled “American Idol”) and NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (marking the heralded return of Aaron Sorkin).

NBC immediately moved “Studio 60” to Mondays at 10, where it will now face another “CSI,” this time the Miami version. And ABC’s “What About Brian,” which got off to a bit of a rocky start when it began in April, might seem vulnerable.

” ‘Studio 60’ would’ve been a great NBC Thursday show,” Metcalf reasons. “Although ‘CSI’ would have been tough competition, we felt confident that two hit dramas could have co-existed. However, when ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ joined the time period, it was too much to ask a first-year show to battle two hit dramas.

“Monday at 10 was an attractive option because the night is a high-promotional priority for us and the competition in that timeslot is not as brutal.”

Certainly the “Grey’s”/ “CSI” matchup will have TiVos humming, and many agree that even though both their numbers may go down, each skein still might receive more than enough eyeballs to keep both networks — and advertisers — happy.

Such was the case in 2001 when CBS had the audacity — and wisdom, as it turns out — to schedule “Survivor” against NBC’s “Friends.” And back in 1990, upstart Fox challenged Peacock giant “The Cosby Show” with toon hit “The Simpsons.”

“There’s been a lot of matchups like this in the past, but at the end of the day, the hype is a lot greater than the battle itself,” Kahl reflects. “They’ll both have audiences.”

While TiVos have been instrumental in allowing viewers to record and time shift programs to watch at their own convenience, some shows and events are almost TiVo-proof.

Sporting events, of course, are best viewed live, but on the entertainment front, there are a handful of shows that, if not watched when originally aired, consumers will miss out on the immediate post-show blogging buzz.

Skeins such as “Lost” and “Grey’s” fit the bill, but the most relevant example would be “American Idol.” Fox brilliantly forces its audience to watch “Idol” when aired live because the voting period lasts less than 24 hours — and nobody wants to be the last to know who got kicked off that week.

“You have to have appointment shows that people feel they need to watch immediately or they’ll be left out of the conversation,” Beckman says.

And that’s a conversation that Fox wants to keep going with its audience for years.

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