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Networks search for 10 p.m. gold

Networks try something new in late hour

ABC and CBS see blood in the 10 p.m. water.

Next month’s series finale of “ER” isn’t just an end of an era for the show; it’s also the departure of yet another 10 p.m. staple that once posted mega-ratings in the hour.

These days, the 10 p.m. slot is inhabited mostly by so-so drama performers and fading franchises — a far cry from the days when “ER” was posting 40 shares, “Law & Order” was at its height and “NYPD Blue” also soared.

The networks have been frustrated in their attempts to capitalize on the success of their 9 o’clock shows. With the exception of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” leading into “Grey’s Anatomy” five years ago, no 9 o’clock series in recent years has helped launch a stand-alone success.

The dearth of 10 o’clock hits has gotten so bad that NBC won’t even program the slot with scripted fare anymore. “The Jay Leno Show” is moving into the hour, as the Peacock — once home to great adult dramas like “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “St. Elsewhere” — seemingly gives up any hope of fielding the next big 10 p.m. skein.

Because Fox doesn’t program at 10 p.m., that leaves the Eye and the Alphabet alone to duke things out next fall. At least with the Peacock out of the game, they now like their odds.

“Leno’s going to make it easier for CBS and ABC,” says one scheduling exec. “It’s a great opportunity.”

The 10 p.m. slot has traditionally been key for the networks’ owned stations and affiliates, which are looking for strong lead-ins to their 11 p.m. newscasts. For years, the nets even hyper-touted their performance from 10:45 p.m. to 11 p.m., looking for something to brag about at the next affiliates meeting.

But then cable networks began aggressively programming the 10 p.m. slot — figuring, in many cases, that their edgier fare wouldn’t work at an earlier hour, and at the same time, sensing weakness at the nets, which have much stricter content standards.

Making matters worse, along came the onslaught of time-shifting, as DVRs began penetrating households — and viewers started watching more digitally recorded fare, and less live TV, at 10 p.m.

Fewer hit sitcoms (which usually air in the first two hours of primetime) opened up the 9 p.m. hour to more dramas — and that’s where most of TV’s top hourlongs (“CSI,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and newcomer “The Mentalist”) now reside.

It hasn’t helped matters that the nets have struggled lately to launch 10 p.m. shows off the backs of their 9 p.m. hits. “Lost” hasn’t spawned a 10 p.m. success yet, while even “CSI” didn’t guarantee a strong enough audience for “Eleventh Hour,” which is on the bubble (and about to go on hiatus).

“10 p.m. is not going to be 10 p.m. again until someone gets their act together,” a network exec says. “But with the right lead-in, I don’t know why you couldn’t have a hit there.”

Sensing opportunity, CBS and ABC aren’t waiting for fall to attack the 10 p.m. problem. The Alphabet is going as far as to launch three new dramas in the hour this spring — “Castle,” “Cupid” and “The Unusuals.” CBS, meanwhile, will bow the thriller “Harper’s Island” in the Thursday spot vacated by “Eleventh Hour.”

Even NBC, which won’t be in the 10 p.m. hunt next year, is utilizing the time period one last time to launch what it hopes will be a new marquee drama, John Wells’ “Southland,” in “ER’s” Thursday slot.

In “Cupid” and “Harper’s Island,” ABC and CBS seem to at least be trying something fresh. The 10 p.m. hour has been the domain of mostly procedural dramas (at least on NBC and CBS) in recent years — while cable offered a bit more offbeat fare. The quirky romantic comedy of “Cupid” and the horror/thriller tone of the limited-run “Harper’s” at least shows the nets trying something different in the hour.

“There’s a huge opportunity in the time slot now,” says ABC exec VP Jeff Bader, who’s now gunning for the audience that will be left behind by the Leno move. “NBC is much closer in profile to our network, and theoretically they’ll be throwing up an audience that will more likely be an ABC audience. So this is a big priority for us.”

As for next year, both nets have already picked up pilots with an eye toward that 10 p.m. slot. At ABC, sci-fi dramas “Flash Forward” and “V” could work behind “Lost,” while femme-centric hours like “See Cate Run” or “Inside the Box” could run behind “Grey’s” or “Housewives.” The net also might try to recapture the magic of “NYPD Blue” and slot a crime drama like “The Unknown” or the untitled Daniel Cerone project there, too.

At CBS, net execs are clearly interested in filling the 10 p.m. medical void (chasing, perhaps, the memories of “ER” and “Chicago Hope”) with pilots such as “Miami Trauma,” “Eastmans” and “Three Rivers.” The Eye may also decide that one of its D.C.-themed projects, like “Washington Field,” “House Rules” or “The Good Wife,” might serve as a good lead-in to news.

One big, new franchise at 10 p.m. could restore a lot of life to the timeslot — and it’s not out of the question. Former NBC scheduler Preston Beckman recently told Entertainment Weekly that the Peacock was close to stripping Leno’s “Tonight Show” at 10 p.m. way back in 1994.

And then along came “ER.”

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