ABC, NBC stuck in the middle

Nets struggle to forge identity ala CBS and Fox

Network feuds have historically arisen for sundry reasons, from personality clashes to skirmishes over the same slice of primetime real estate.

After trading verbal barbs during Ben Silverman’s brief stay at NBC, a conflict of the latter variety could be brewing between his former network and ABC, though the tension might be less personal than pragmatic.

Television is no longer a zero-sum game, in strict “for me to win at 8 p.m., you have to lose” terms. But it is a landscape of finite resources — including advertiser loot, cultural buzz and claims upon the audience prone to commit to series — and with CBS and Fox each staking out their own distinctive turf, ABC and NBC appear stuck in the middle with each other.

Part of this scenario stems from simple logistics. Fox doesn’t program the 10 p.m. hour, and ventures into terrain almost unimaginable for its rivals, from a primetime animation block to the musical “Glee.”

CBS’ decision to open a comedy front Thursday by moving “The Big Bang Theory” is clearly designed to capitalize on NBC’s weakness with its sitcoms. Beyond that, though, the most-watched and oldest-skewing network has shrewdly stuck to its knitting, carving out its own turf with a roster heavily reliant on crime.

NBC endured the role of network punching bag during Jay Leno’s misguided foray into primetime. Since moving to rectify that mistake in March, the Peacock network has stressed how its 10 p.m. performance — even with a patchwork lineup — was instantly competitive with ABC, which has struggled to gain steady toeholds in that hour. (“Castle” emerged as a rare bright spot, gradually catching on thanks to a well-choreographed lead-in from “Dancing With the Stars.”)

ABC Entertainment prez Stephen McPherson cited the need to “attack 10 p.m.” as a primary goal during his upfront presentation. NBC is doing much the same, sending four new weeknight hours into battle in the fall.

In terms of style, after flirting with edgy, trendsetting dramas, NBC and ABC each appear to have retreated to something closer to a meat-and-potatoes strategy — a bit more comfort food, perhaps, for recessionary times.

Both look determined to launch procedurals with a slightly hipper spin. At a glance, many of their new series feel interchangeable, as if they’d potentially fit on either network, whether that’s NBC’s relationship show “Love Bites” or ABC’s medical drama “Off the Map.”

Put NBC’s and ABC’s lineups side by side, and structural similarities stand out as well. For example, both rely on a two-hour reality show early in the week (“The Biggest Loser,” “Dancing”); both have a midweek comedy block anchored by one genuine hit (“The Office” and “Modern Family”), surrounded by others of questionable strength; and both schedule a Friday that consists of a reality show, new drama and newsmagazine.

And while new blood is always coveted, each could seriously use the momentum a new hit would provide.

Granted, this anticipated friction has a long way to go in matching CBS and NBC during the late 1990s, when then-entertainment chiefs Leslie Moonves and Warren Littlefield colorfully sparred with each other — using an eager press (sigh, those were good times) as a conduit.

The folks currently running ABC and NBC are a study in contrasts. McPherson is known for his fiery temper (his boss, Anne Sweeney, described him as “passionate and fearless” during the upfront), and didn’t hide his disdain for Silverman or the Leno move. While ABC and other broadcasters are trying to “put on great material,” he told reporters last summer, NBC “seems to be kind of doing their own thing.”

NBC U TV Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin — tasked with climbing out of a hole he didn’t dig — is more cool and calculating, but the two already tangoed in January, when Gaspin irked McPherson by referring to ABC’s declines (ABC accused him of fuzzy math) at 10 p.m.

Modern TV is hardly a two-horse race, but occasional missteps notwithstanding, CBS and Fox are running in clearly marked lanes. As for ABC and NBC, each could use a strong break as the upfront gates open — and the flag is up.

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