Networks shuffle programming schedules

Like generals moving model tanks around in the war room, this is the week network execs get down and dirty with their scheduling grids.

And more than most years, the nets are already planning a few big moves — which could, like dominoes, lead to a few big responses from rivals.

NBC’s 10 p.m. Jay Leno strip has thrown that time period up in the air, likely leading to a few aggressive stabs by ABC and CBS. The CW, meanwhile, has jumped out of Sunday nights entirely — which means it now has just 10 hours a week to fill.

The nets also have shown a willingness to air more 2-hour and 90-minute programs, and are picking up more low-rated and/or low-cost fare to sprinkle throughout the week.

That means what was once a fairly predictable game (pair a comedy with a comedy; air a drama at 10 p.m.; done) has been opened up to more experimentation, especially as the nets are forced to respond to rapidly changing viewer habits.

On the eve of next week’s upfront presentations, plenty of burning questions remain: Will Fox schedule frosh high school drama “Glee” in “American Idol’s” Tuesday spot, keeping “House” on Mondays? Will ABC find a way to keep a “Lost” presence in the fall, and run both “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Bachelor” also in the fall?

Also: Will NBC air a half-hour comedy behind “The Biggest Loser,” and will it really schedule the edgy “Law & Order: SVU” at 8? Will CBS rookie hit “The Mentalist” get a 10 p.m. upgrade?

While the nets continue to reduce the number of hours in which they program original, scripted fare, they’re also once again anxious to make sure Friday doesn’t turn into another Saturday-style primetime wasteland.

“Advertisers want scripted shows, and you’ve got to try and put them everywhere you can,” says one exec. “You’ve got to expand them to Friday.”

In recent years, the nets have mostly turned Friday over to unscripted fare. With the exception of CBS, which wins the night with middle-of-the-road dramas like “Ghost Whisperer,” the nets’ more recent attempts to launch scripted dramas have come up short.

This spring, that has included Fox’s sci-fi duo “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which isn’t expected to return, and “Dollhouse,” which remains on the bubble.

Friday wasn’t always an afterthought. ABC’s once-valuable “TGIF” comedy franchise ruled there for years, while NBC did well around a decade ago with femme-skewing drama “Providence.”

With five weeknight hours now devoted to Leno, NBC will need to spread its new and returning shows out — and Friday can’t be an afterthought anymore.

As a result, the Peacock last week announced plans to take another stab at original dramas on the night, having retreated this midseason to reality skeins like “Howie Do It” and the second run of “Friday Night Lights.”

“Hopefully we’ll deliver a big, surgical focus on Monday through Friday,” NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios co-chair Ben Silverman says.

CW, meanwhile, with its pared-down week, can’t just take things for granted either on Friday (where it currently airs comedies and an “America’s Next Top Model” repeat).

ABC also is expected to bring scripted fare back to Fridays this fall, holding reality staples “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” back for midseason.

Among other Friday possibilities: NBC could return to its old female strategy, bringing new dramas “Parenthood” and “Mercy” to the night. Or it could move fan favorite “Chuck” (should it be renewed) there. CW, meanwhile, is said to be considering the soph season of “Privileged” there.

Friday’s downward slide is nothing new, having been ongoing for at least a decade. The night hasn’t been totally devoid of hits — but shows that have opened big on Fridays, like “CSI,” were deemed too valuable for the night and quickly moved to a more prominent showcase.

“The HUT levels are much lower (on Fridays), and the ad demand is much lower,” notes one exec. “When you’re advertising to people over the weekend, you’re advertising to people who are not out buying things.”

But in an ironic twist, network execs say the ratings bar has collapsed so much — with a 3 rating in the demo pretty much the new benchmark — that Friday and Saturday may once again be viable for original fare.

“The threshold for what constitutes a hit series now has gotten so low that there’s no reason why you can’t have one on Friday or Saturday,” a network exec says.

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