Nets jockey for top fall spot

Webs shift hit shows to tough timeslots

The pendulum just swung the other way.

After years of preaching stability, several broadcast networks are taking big chances this fall.

To wit: Hit shows are moving into tough timeslots. New sitcoms and dramas are being scheduled back-to-back, as execs cross their fingers that viewers somehow stumble into them. And serialized skeins are back in a big way –even though the genre flatlines when episodes are repeated.

The chiefs at NBC and ABC, in particular, say they had no choice. As the new digital revolution continues to rewrite how viewers get their entertainment, there’s no room for complacency.

In the 1970s, programmer Fred Silverman was revered for his “golden gut.” These days, webheads are chugging Mylanta to soothe their queasy bellies.

Here’s a first network-by-network look at the moves that are calming nerves — and those that are already triggering dyspepsia:

ABC

Best move: Shifting “Grey’s Anatomy” to 9 p.m. Thursdays. In one gutsy stroke, Alphabet execs made the net a player on TV’s most financially lucrative night and forced NBC to re-evaluate its strategy. What’s more, with CBS shifting “Without a Trace” out of the 10 p.m. Thursday slot, ABC’s got a chance to grow a new hit with “Six Degrees.”

Riskiest move: Slotting promising laffers “Big Day” and “Notes From the Underbelly” Thursdays from 8 to 9 p.m. Both shows elicited laughs from advertisers at ABC’s upfront, and both have a shot to work. But ABC has no history of successful comedies on Thursdays, while rivals NBC and Fox have been programming laffers on the night for years. Still, there’s no blockbuster comedy hit on the night, so maybe the Alphabet will be able to break out.

Bottom line: No net is adding shows or shaking up more timeslots. That said, ABC’s rookies also have the most buzz coming out of the upfronts. If just one newcomer breaks out, the shuffling will be worth it. Look for ABC to once again be in the hunt for the adults 18-49 crown.

CBS

Best move: Making as few changes as possible. There’s nothing sexy about the Eye’s fall lineup, but that’s a good thing. There aren’t any real gaping holes in the CBS sked and, by remaining stable, the net increases its odds of doing well next year. Plus, with NBC and ABC making tons of changes, being the calm anchor in turbulent seas is a good thing.

Riskiest move: Shifting “Without a Trace” to 10 p.m. Sunday, away from its protected Thursday slot. While it was definitely time for the Eye to use “CSI” to grow a new hit, it remains to be seen just how loyal “Trace” viewers are. If they don’t follow the show to Sunday, CBS may end up damaging a solid asset and weakening its numbers on Thursdays. If James Woods starrer “Shark” has bite, however, any decline for “Trace” will be worth it.

Bottom line: CBS will once again dominate in total viewers and, thanks to the Super Bowl, it’s even got a shot at first in demos.

CW

Best move: Leaving “Smallville” and “Supernatural” together on Thursday nights. Every other net will be tweaking at least an hour of its Thursday lineup, leaving the new CW as the only web with a stable programming block on the night (even if it’s from the soon-to-be-dead WB network). If “Superman Returns” is a big hit at the multiplex, that could increase interest in “Smallville,” while “Supernatural” is the only spooky show to survive from the frosh class of 2005.

Worst move: Moving signature comedy “Everybody Hates Chris” to 7 p.m. Sundays. Sure, it’ll be the only firstrun comedy in the slot during the fall (when Fox airs either football overruns or repeats). But it will be hard for “Chris” to break out into a mainstream hit in a marginalized timeslot surrounded by niche laffers such as “Girlfriends.”

Bottom line: The familiar feel of the CW’s lineup — an almost even mash-up of WB and UPN skeins — could be the ultimate in comfort food for fans of the old netlets. It also could induce giant yawns from folks looking for something exciting from a new player.

Fox

Best move: Keeping its drama darlings in place. Coming off a stellar year, there was no reason for Fox to mess with what’s working — and the net wisely didn’t. That means powerhouse “House” sticks with Tuesdays at 9, “Prison Break” remains Monday at 8 and “24” returns once again in January. There’s a time to take risks and a time to remain stable — and Fox execs know it.

Riskiest move: Fox has tried for years to get into the game on Thursday nights — and next year it will probably be just as difficult, even with broader-appeal laffers. The Brad Garrett comedy “‘Til Death” and buddy laffer “Happy Hour” face an uphill battle vs. time period champ “Survivor” and NBC’s critically adored half-hours. “‘Til Death” and “Happy Hour” also aren’t really compatible with “The OC,” which continues to perform decently but unspectacularly at 9.

Bottom line: “American Idol.” “American Idol.” “American Idol.” Does it even pay to handicap Fox’s fall schedule, when “Idol” will come on in January and blow away the competish anyway?

NBC

Best move: It wasn’t a surprise, but landing “Sunday Night Football” helped solve NBC’s problems on a night that had become a black eye for the Peacock. Also, by filling four hours of NBC’s 22-hour sked, the NFL franchise helped mask the net’s holes throughout the week — and allowed it to hold several vet players (“Crossing Jordan,” “Scrubs”) back for midseason.

Riskiest move: Originally “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s” Thursday-at-9 berth, where the show faced certain death against powerhouses “CSI” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” The Peacock quickly nixed the idea, however – reshuffling a huge chunk of its fall sked in the process. Peacock now takes more of a risk in the 10 p.m. slot where it had traditionally dominated. With new shows on Monday (“Studio 60”) and Wednesday (“Kidnapped”), not to mention Thursday come midseason (“The Black Donnelleys”) and “Law & Order” moving to Friday, NBC may be ceding more of its local news lead-in. Bottom line: NBC originally touted a strategy of airing new shows in the 9 p.m. tentpole slot, but scrapped it after watching the competish’s sked. Placing safer reality skeins like “Biggest Loser” and “Deal or No Deal” there may help limit the bleeding. But NBC’s two new comedies will have to self-start on Wednesday. And once football ends in January, the Peacock may be in for a tougher game.

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