Strike, slow start necessitate fall overhaul
After a fall launch that’s left everyone a bit bruised, network execs hoped to see a bit of healing come January — but a writers’ strike now threatens to leave them even more bloodied.The strike – set to begin just after midnight on Monday – couldn’t come at a worse time for the broadcast webs. This fall, success stories have been few and far between, and increased DVR usage is challenging the way networks, advertisers and pop culture arbiters evaluate the performance of new shows and returning tentpoles. Digital downloads, Internet streaming, ever-more competish from cable originals, and Web and vidgame options are among the countless reasons thrown out as contributing to primetime’s season of discontent. And while no one seems to have a magic formula for reversing the trend of declining primetime ratings, just about every one in the biz agrees that a strike — and the loss of original, scripted skeins for the time being — will only make things worse. “It’s been an abysmal season,” says one entertainment president. “What ultimately worries me about a strike is, are we hastening the narrowing of network TV? If we have to put up a sign that says ‘gone fishing,’ luring viewers back is going to be even more difficult.” January is when old reliables like “American Idol,” “24″ and “Lost” (which is expected to bow by the first week of February) could inject a little more life into the 2007-08 campaign, and the period when the networks will launch a slew of reality shows, any one of which could turn out to be the next game-changer. It’s also the point at which most scripted skeins will run out of fresh episodes if the writers continue to strike into the new year. Although there were no instant smashes out of the gate, this hasn’t been a complete disaster of a fall: ABC has reason to crow, with several new shows looking like winners, including “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Private Practice” and the critically lauded “Pushing Daisies.” And with fewer baseball playoff games breaking up its primetime sked in October, Fox was able to improve its fall fortunes even without a new breakout hit, ranking as the only Big Four web to post year-to-year gains among young adults. But elsewhere, several of the new shows people were talking about heading into fall — think “Bionic Woman,” “Reaper,” “Cavemen” and “Viva Laughlin” — have been disappointing enough to make execs ready for a midseason “do over.” And whether they want it or not, that’s exactly what a strike may deliver. Here’s a network-by-network look at the state of the primetime biz heading into midseason and what the webs have coming up for the rest of the year, no matter what plot twists may come from the Writers Guild of America’s white-knuckle contract negotiations with Hollywood’s majors. ABC The season so far: Net has managed to come up with several promising freshman: “Private Practice,” “Samantha Who” and “Pushing Daisies” are looking like keepers, while “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Women’s Murder Club” could also be around for the long haul. Jury’s still out on “Big Shots” and “Carpoolers,” while things are looking grim for “Cavemen.” Among returnees, “Grey’s Anatomy” remains TV’s top-rated series in the adults 18-49 demo, while “Dancing With the Stars” continues to shine. Midseason gameplan: ABC has bulked up for midseason, with a hefty bench of reality and scripted shows. Some of them are already set to bow this month: new drama “Cashmere Mafia,” and the return of last year’s midseason entries “Notes From the Underbelly” and “October Road.” In January, ABC will bridge the gap between “Dancing With the Stars” cycles with the spinoff “Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann.” Then, in early February comes a significant piece of the Alphabet’s primetime puzzle: “Lost.” Where “Lost” might wind up its fourth season is the subject of debate (logical spots would be Tuesday or Wednesday at 10 p.m., with either “Boston Legal” or “Dirty Sexy Money” taking a rest), as ABC’s Wednesday night lineup is working well even without the show that has been its anchor on the night for the past three seasons. Other midseason shows on the shelf include comedies “According to Jim” and “Miss/Guided,” new drama “Eli Stone,” and reality skeins such as “Oprah Winfrey’s The Big Give,” “Wife Swap,” “Supernanny,” “Wanna Bet,” “Just for Laughs,” “Here Come the Newlyweds” and “Duel.” Contingency plans: Given its fall successes, ABC potentially has the most to lose in the event of a long strike, at least when it comes to momentum. Nonetheless, the mantra is to operate as normally as possible, even if most of its scripted shows are forced into repeats. Alphabet execs would prefer to keep their signature shows on the air, rather than confuse viewers further by bringing in cable originals or other imported fare. “We’re not going to do anything we wouldn’t do if there wasn’t a strike,” one exec says. “Reruns don’t do much better than repurposed fare anyway.” Of course, ABC was looking at the highly anticipated promise of 16 uninterrupted “Lost” episodes to give it a big midseason boost. That pledge could be shortened, as only eight episodes will be ready to go by January. But rather than wait, ABC will still air what it has, as scheduled. “It’s better to come on with some season than no season,” one insider says. “If there’s a strike we’ll need scripted programming.” CBS The season so far: “The Big Bang Theory” has emerged as a solid comedy success, and Friday newcomer “Moonlight” is doing OK numbers. And as always, Eye has few craters — especially after the quick cancellation of “Viva Laughlin.” “We have some bright spots and competitively, as we do most years, we feel good about our position,” says CBS scheduling supremo Kelly Kahl. Still, the net’s bid to diversify its sked hasn’t been well-executed. “Laughlin” was an instant dud, “Cane” has been a non-starter and “Kid Nation” wasn’t the gamechanger CBS was looking for in reality (though credit the Eye with toughing it out). Midseason gameplan: After the quick fade of “Laughlin,” the net’s already gone to its bench for “The Amazing Race,” which should bring some stability to Sundays starting this week. Come January, it’ll have to fill Wednesday’s “Kid Nation” timeslot, and, for a few weeks, the Thursday 8 p.m. slot normally occupied by “Survivor.” By March, it’ll also need to replace “Amazing Race.” Net still has two more wildcards to play this season: edgy new drama “Swingtown” and the return of “Jericho.” Both skeins fit into entertainment prexy Nina Tassler’s mission of change, but skedding both will be a challenge. “Jericho,” which won’t be back until January at the earliest, could return to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, though that means facing “American Idol” on some weeks. Sunday nights are an option, too. As for “Swingtown,” 10 p.m. on Sunday or Tuesday nights are the most likely options, assuming the net is brave enough to put the show about ’70s swingers on the air. With Monday’s comedy block working, Eye might want to leave things alone there. That means a possible new comedy night built around midseason returnee “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and newcomer “The Captain.” Contingency plans: Look for CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky (“48 Hours Mystery”) to be pressed into duty, filling numerous hours with specials. And the Eye is hoping its crime dramas still repeat well (they’ve been slipping a bit lately). CBS reality czar Ghen Maynard has been stocking the shelves with reality and gameshow contenders, including new episodes of “Power of 10″ and the Regis Philbin-hosted “Million Dollar Password.” Then there’s “Big Brother.” Summer staple could easily return as soon as March — maybe even with a long-rumored celebrity edition. Launching a new comedy night might be easier. CBS could use “Two and a Half Men” repeats to help build a new half-hour beachhead. And a newcomer like “Swingtown” might have a better shot of getting sampled in a strike atmosphere. “If you’re a new show with completed episodes and you can get on the air against mostly repeats, it could give you a leg up,” Kahl says. Fox The season so far: Net has been buoyed by the strength of its Tuesday combo of “Bones” and “House,” as well as its Sunday animated comedies. A lighter baseball sked (playoff games are now split with TBS) also helped; as a result, Fox’s ratings are up by double-digits vs. last year. Net was also assisted by the fact that it mostly eschewed launching new shows in the fall. Just two frosh scripted skeins bowed: “K-Ville,” which remains on the bubble, and “Back to You,” which has posted so-so numbers but has been given a full-season pickup. On the reality tip, “Kitchen Nightmares” has been a decent player, and has already earned a second go-round; Friday night entry “Nashville” was DOA and talent competish “Next Great American Band” hasn’t made any noise. Midseason gameplan: “American Idol” will be huge, natch, filling three hours or more in some weeks. It’s assumed that the megahit will stay in its regular Tuesday-Wednesday pattern, but there’s always the possibility that the net may tweak things to allow “House” to air every week on Tuesday. And then there’s the return of “24,” which is garnering headlines because of its move to Washington, D.C., and star Kiefer Sutherland’s move to a county jail cell come hiatus time. Fox also has big-time sports events like the Super Bowl and college football’s Bowl Championship Series. To capitalize on all that action, the net has held back most of its new crop of skeins for January bows. Dramas include “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which will air Mondays at 8; as well as “New Amsterdam” (Fridays) and “Canterbury’s Law” (Thursdays). Comedies set to go include “The Return of Jezebel James” (Wednesdays) and “Unhitched.” Fox’s plate is full enough that it has cut back orders on several shows, including “Amsterdam” and “Jezebel James.” Contingency plans: No net is better positioned than Fox because of the elastic “Idol.” It would also be a shock if reality honcho Mike Darnell didn’t have a midseason trick or two up his sleeve. One that’s already in the works is gonzo gameshow “Lie Detector.” NBC The season so far: Moving “The Office” to 9 p.m. has boosted the show’s profile and turned it into a bona fide ratings hit. NBC’s new shows, however, are struggling — particularly “Journeyman” and “Life.” Look for NBC to stick with buzz-friendly “Chuck” and the expensive “Bionic Woman,” which the Peacock sees as worthy of getting more time to grow. Overall, NBC has the least amount of demo decline among the Big Three nets, but it’s also got no clear-cut winners to show and no other real growth stories, save “The Office.” Midseason strategy: Look for Peacock program chief Ben Silverman to try to razzle-dazzle ‘em with an onslaught of flashy reality skeins (“Clash of the Choirs”) and high-concept gameshows (“Amnesia”), as well as some specials and maybe a movie or two (a new “Knight Rider” is in the works). Net’s got some solid players on the bench, including “Medium” and “Law & Order” (which could replace fall failures at 10 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday). There’s also “Sex and the City”-style drama “Lipstick Jungle.” It’ll be interesting to see if NBC finally decides to try out a new show Thursday at 10, resting the weakened “ER” for a few weeks in what may very well be that show’s last season. Contingency plans: Net has already pulled the plug on “Heroes: Origins,” citing the uncertain future of the WGA talks as a reason. Look for more cost-saving moves as NBC bulks up on reality — and maybe even buys some already-produced episodes of British or Canadian shows. The CW The season so far: From a distance, things look pretty bad, with double-digit declines in many key demos. But dig deeper and CW has reason to hope. “Gossip Girl” is doing respectable ratings and is off the chart buzz-wise with the net’s core aud of young femmes. “Reaper” is also doing well on those measures, as are the net’s unscripted skeins. “We did a good job of getting our priority shows off the ground,” says CBS’ Kahl, who also oversees the C-Dub’s sked. He says “Gossip” and “Reaper” are on their way to becoming signature shows. Midseason gameplan: Reality — and lots of it. In addition to more “Top Model” and “Beauty and the Geek,” net will launch newcomers “Crowned” and “Farmer Wants a Wife,” along with another “Search for the Next Pussycat Doll.” Also in the can: New episodes of vet drama “One Tree Hill.” Past history suggests CW will take off “Reaper” or “Gossip Girl” to make room for new fare, but Kahl hinted one or both could stay on the air in order to build new auds. Whatever it does, look for at least three weekly hours of reality (plus two hours of WWE on Friday). “Unlike last year, we won’t be limping to the finish line,” Kahl says. Contingency plans: Except for a slowdown in originals, a CW strike sked wouldn’t be too different from a regular sked. “One Tree” will return, while “Everybody Hates Chris” — which has already wrapped production — will stay in originals most of the season. CBS’ Maynard, who also oversees reality for CW, has a slew of possible reality replacements ready to greenlight if a strike drags on. In fact, some wonder if a strike wouldn’t be good for CW, which could establish a strong identity as an unscripted network.