ABC hopes for a strong finish

Network looking to add new hits to lineup

It hasn’t been a great year for ABC, but perhaps no network has a bigger chance to improve its fortunes at midseason than the Alphabet.

The network, still home to top-rated smashes “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives,” will be looking to add some new hits to its lineup — and a key part of its strategy is an extreme makeover of the 10 o’clock timeslot.

Returning sophomore shows “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Eli Stone” and “Pushing Daisies” are gone and low-rated vet “Boston Legal” has ended its run, opening up some real estate, especially in primetime’s closing hour. And ABC, which opted to launch only two new shows last fall due mostly to the writers strike, is loaded with more firstrun frosh fare than any of its rivals.

Already, unscripted newbie “True Beauty” is performing better than “Boston Legal” on Monday; newsmag “Primetime: What Would You Do?” is an upgrade over “Eli Stone” on Tuesday; and “Private Practice” is looking stronger than “Life on Mars” on Thursday.

Also helping the net’s cause, “Lost” is back this week, and the potent “Dancing With the Stars,” which saw a ratings dip in the fall, will return with its spring edition in early March.

Overall, ABC is tied with NBC for third place in adults 18-49 (2.9 rating) but is just a couple of ticks behind leader CBS (3.1). And it moves up to a solid No. 2 behind CBS — comfortably ahead of NBC and Fox — when all sports are tossed out.

The Alphabet is also the season leader in upscale ratings categories for a fourth straight year, allowing it to collect more coin per Nielsen point than its rivals.

Here’s a closer look at ABC at midseason:

WHAT SMOKES: Despite erosion, ABC is the net to beat in the second half of the season on Sunday thanks to “Desperate Housewives,” which has thrived creatively and in the Nielsens, as well as still-solid skedmates “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “Brothers & Sisters.”

“Grey’s Anatomy” is the most-played show on DVRs this season, helping account for some of its surprisingly steep overall declines. Still, it leads television’s toughest hour (Thursdays at 9) among young adults, despite limited help from its fading “Ugly Betty” lead-in.

“Dancing With the Stars” remains a top-10 performer, but it’s at the point of its run where it really needs a few big name celeb contestants to maintain viewer interest. Its next edition will face its toughest Monday competish yet (including Fox’s “House”).

WHAT CHOKES: Despite its reliable hits, the net has been hampered by too many programs that aren’t competitive in their respective timeslots. Fortunately, most of these weak performers have been pulled, and the bar is low for their replacements.

Although not a glaring trouble spot because of the night’s low viewing levels, Friday has been lagging with the combo of “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny.” ABC should develop its own “Providence”-style family drama for the night and pair it with something like “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

And newcomer “Homeland Security USA” hasn’t done much on Tuesdays, and is an odd choice to lead in to “Scrubs,” but it could be a decent player in another slot.

BIGGEST MIDSEASON HOPE: Of its three new dramas, “Castle” — starring Nathan Fillion as a mystery novelist recruited by the NYPD to help solve crimes — clearly has the most appeal, and should benefit by airing behind “Dancing.” Its competish is a pair of other crime dramas, but this entry could benefit by its lighter touch and pick up viewers tired of “CSI: Miami.”

ABC also has high hopes for “Life on Mars” and “Private Practice,” a pair of promising shows that will get their chance to find a bigger aud behind “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” respectively.

BIGGEST NEED: A winning comedy. The net has had some funny laffers of late (including “Miss Guided” and “Notes From the Underbelly”) but they never had a shot, orphaned in a lineup that hasn’t had a real hit half-hour in years.

A good goal for ABC would be to form a four-comedy block on Wednesdays in the fall, with a focus on relatable, multicamera family comedies — perhaps including the recently piloted Kelsey Grammer skein about a corporate tycoon who reconnects with his family after being downsized.

The animated “Goode Family” could be a part of this mix, while “Samantha Who” and “Scrubs” might be better paired together on Tuesday.

BOTTOM LINE: The Alphabet should enjoy a stronger finish than it has in recent years, but it could be a challenge to keep up with CBS in the battle for second place.

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