Nets already eyeing January

Absence of 'Lost,' '24' and Simon Cowell could shake things up

As they eyeball the 2010-2011 TV season, network execs are already looking at next midseason in a different light.

Two of the winter months’ top broadcast tentpoles — “Lost” and “24” — won’t be making their usual splashy January launches next year. And a third, “American Idol,” will no longer have its top asset, cranky judge Simon Cowell.

According to webheads, the lack of these three staples presents some challenges, but also opportunity.

“We’ll have the ability to hit the reset button and be more aggressive with our midseason slate,” one network exec says.

Midseason is an important time of year for nets to debut series in a less cluttered environment. This season’s most-watched new series, “Undercover Boss,” bowed in midseason (boosted by the Super Bowl), while ABC’s hot drama “Castle” first appeared last spring.

The loss of “24” and “Lost” will, in some ways, return the networks to a more normal scheduling announcement this May. Up until a few years ago, the broadcasters were fine with just announcing their fall plans at the upfront presentations — knowing that it’s too early to commit to a January sked.

“Ten years ago, we really just programmed the fall, and worried about everything else later,” one exec says. “You thought about midseason a bit, but tended to feel like you could turn your homework in late.”

But then came “American Idol” as well as the trend toward putting on other serialized fare in January, in order to run those series uninterrupted through the end of the season in May. Not wanting to leave key shows like “24” or “Lost” hanging, the nets started announcing early midseason lineups as well (even if they were subject to massive revision once some new shows failed).

“Now we really look at a 52-week grid,” one exec said.

But with fewer major pieces being saved for January next year (not to mention, no Winter Olympics disruption), another exec said there may also be a return to traditional scheduling — or at least, a traditional fall-only announcement at the upfronts.

As opposed to planning for the midseason launches. It will be more of an evaluation in the fall, and then you’ll decide what works best,” an exec says.

Fox, for example, won’t have to shuffle one of its Monday series to another night in order to make room for “24.” And ABC won’t be faced with its annual “where-are-we-going-to-schedule-Lost?” dilemma.

On the flip side, the exit of “24” and “Lost” means that the networks have two fewer shows to drum up excitement and interest in their new and returning fare post-holidays. It also means two fewer established players they can count on to fill those inevitable sked holes.

“This is taking some fairly big guns out of play,” one exec says. “These shows aren’t what they were (“24″ is down noticeably in the ratings this year), and it does on those schedules open up some space. But it also introduces a little more uncertainty… they still brought a known audience to the table.”

Then there’s the prospect of a Simon-free “American Idol.” Although “Idol” isn’t going away, the talent competish, which is showing some expected ratings erosion in its

ninth season, could take a further hit.

That might give Fox’s rivals reason to make some moves in the fall they might not have otherwise done.

“You had this huge headwind that you were going up against, this hurricane you were facing in midseason,” one Fox rival says. “It’s still an important force, but less so.”

In recent years, “Idol” has presented a tricky problem to nets as they plotted their midseason rollouts: Do you sneak something on in the few weeks before “Idol” gets on the air, or do you wait until the middle of its run?

CW, for example, felt compelled to hold off on new episodes of its Tuesday dramas “90210” and “Melrose Place” for all of January and February due to “Idol” (and its never-ending run of two-hour installments) and then the Olympics. And ABC’s fledgling Thursday serialized skein “FlashForward” was off for months in part due to a desire to avoid the Olympics and the three weeks in late winter that “Idol” elbows its way onto the night.

“Now we can come out of the holidays with more of a second fall,” the Fox rival says. “You can think about it almost like a second crack at a big premiere week.”

Even in fall, the prospect of a Cowell-less “American Idol” may spur at least one network to more aggressively attack Tuesday with sitcoms.

Seeing how “Idol” has long squashed most promising comedies in its wake, the nets have only dipped their toes into the Tuesday half-hour game — knowing that it’s “Idol” domain.

But that’s changing. ABC’s “Modern Family” is holding its own against the “Idol” results show on Wednesday nights.

We salivate over the HUT (homes using television) levels that you see in January, when they traditionally peak,” one exec says. “It’s a great opportunity with the right show to make a name for itself.”

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