Skein's risky Sunday switch proves net knew best

It was some time last spring when “Without a Trace” exec producer Greg Walker first got wind of the changes to come.

“I remember hearing a rumor from one of our (CBS) friends that we might be changing timeslots,” Walker says. “I think it was an attempt to soften the blow.”

Sked shifts happen all the time in network TV, but the “Trace” shuffle — officially unveiled in May — was a biggie.

After four years, the Anthony LaPaglia-toplined missing-persons skein would be ankling its primo position behind the Eye’s megahit “CSI.” What’s more, “Trace” was being sent off to Sundays at 10 p.m., a slot CBS hadn’t programmed with series for more than a decade.

“I found out from a stranger walking down the street in Paris,” LaPaglia says. “I had heard the rumor ahead of time, but when it was confirmed, I was shocked by the move.”

As if that weren’t enough, series creator Hank Steinberg, who’d been slowly transitioning away from his baby, had already signaled his intent to fully depart by the start of the new season.

“I had mixed feelings about it,” Steinberg says of the show’s new weekend slot.

The combination of a new timeslot and new showrunners might’ve spelled danger. But so far, “Trace” has risen to the challenge.

A little more than a month into the new season, the drama has helped CBS successfully launch its new Sunday lineup, easily ranking as the Eye’s most-watched show on the night.

“Trace” is averaging nearly 16 million viewers in its new home, with a 4.6 rating among adults 18-49. Though the series has lost about a quarter of its 2005-06 audience, Eye execs are more focused on another stat: “Trace” has boosted the net’s demo perf in the Sunday slot by a whopping 84%.

“We had confidence in ‘Trace’s’ ability to move, and we’re really happy with what it’s doing now,” says CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler. “It was a risk, but it was a risk worth taking.”

Steinberg acknowledges that the move made sense for the Eye, but he still has concerns.

“The jury’s still out,” he says.

“We’re doing hugely better than what they had there, but we’re not drawing the same amount of viewers, probably losing some who didn’t move over from Thursday.”

CBS had a number of successful skeins it could’ve moved to Sundays this season, so why “Trace?”

“The show was continuing to grow (on Thursdays),” Tassler said. “We looked at how it rose to the challenge of taking the mantle from ‘ER’ and the strength of the show’s creative leadership and the cast. We knew we had all those bases covered with ‘Trace.’ “

Tassler says “Trace” also has elements in its creative DNA that make it a good fit for a big TV night such as Sunday.

“It’s always had that great blend of a character drama with just enough procedural elements so that the episodes are self-contained,” she says. “This show always felt like appointment television.”

Nonetheless, the “Trace” gang had mixed emotions about the move early on.

When the show first aired after “CSI” four years ago, it held on to barely half of the latter skein’s enormous lead-in. Over time, however, “Trace” built to the point where it retained more than 70% of its lead-in. And last season, it even claimed the adults 18-49 title, dethroning longtime slot champ “ER.”

Despite the fact that “Trace” had clearly found its own audience, any skein that follows a blockbuster is inevitably going to be seen in somewhat of a diminished light. So while giving up the cozy post-”CSI” slot wasn’t on any producer’s wish list, the move has actually proved to be something of a blessing.

“We were the redheaded stepchild of Thursday night,” Walker says. “Now, our work stands out a little bit more. It’s not in the shadow of a megahit.”

LaPaglia agrees, saying he like the fact that “Trace” now “has our own identity.

“And it’s flattering when (CBS) tells you your show is the right one to help them reclaim Sunday night.”

For Walker and co-showrunner Jan Nash, taking full command of “Trace” has been made easier by the fact that they’ve been with the show since the first season. What’s more, Steinberg had wisely delegated authority, allowing producers like Walker plenty of time to learn the ropes.

“By the time we took over, we’d done a lot of the elements of showrunning,” Walker says. “The most difficult part of the transition was knowing there wasn’t the safety net of having someone else cleaning up your mess.”

Walker says he’s also convinced Steinberg’s original premise for “Trace” makes it a show that’s stronger than any one scribe or producer.

“We don’t start with a dead body. We start with the hope that you can find somebody,” he says. “The premise of the show is what will outlast us all.”

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