Networks prep their final answers

Some schedule surprises expected

Are the networks feeling bold again this year?

Last May, scheduling gurus at the Big Four networks took a few big chances, including ABC’s all-new Wednesday comedy block, NBC’s Jay Leno 10 p.m. strip and Fox’s in-season run of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Some gambles worked — ABC scored a big hit out of Wednesday tentpole “Modern Family,” and Fox had its most competitive fall in memory — while others (ahem, Leno) didn’t.

NBC and ABC probably can’t afford to play things too safe this year, as both nets have several key scheduling holes to fill. But CBS and Fox may once again look to offer at least one surprise twist.

A few burning questions as webheads put the finishing touches on their schedules:

Will CBS mess with its Thursday night?

The Eye is notoriously adverse to making many mega- moves on its schedule, as honcho Leslie Moonves has generally been rewarded for years by preaching and practicing patience.

When CBS does make a big move (think “Survivor” or “CSI” to Thursday), it’s carefully crafted and usually works.

With “CSI” dramatically eroding on Thursdays, the Eye may think it’s time to make a change — and has indeed experimented with everything, from trying out sitcoms on the night to “The Mentalist” and “CSI” swapping slots. None of those moves have shown any conclusive data, however.

“They could decide to do nothing,” one exec says. “But they have to be looking at ‘CSI’ and saying ‘Survivor’ is pretty strong. Do they move ‘Mentalist’ down to 9 and put something at 10? That’s probably their biggest issue.”

How will Fox vamp this fall without the multi-night “So You Think You Can Dance”?

Fox saw its fortunes rise last fall as it chose to emulate it successful spring sked. “Dance” aired in the familiar “Idol” Tuesday-Wednesday pattern, something the forthcoming “X-Factor” is also expected to do come fall 2011.

But in the meantime, what will Fox pair with “Glee” on Tuesday? Could the hot musical comedy move down to 8, allowing the net to launch a new show at 9? Does reality prince of darkness Mike Darnell have a super-secret project that might be placed there? Will Fox team “Glee” with a pair of comedies?

How many comedies will wind up on the fall schedule?

Given all the talk of a “comedy revival,” it would seem to be a given that more laffers will wind up on the fall sked than last year’s 18.

But where? Every network has been rumored to be considering new or extended comedy blocks, with Tuesday one night that is wide open.

Perhaps ABC won’t be able to resist the allure of pairing Matthew Perry (“Mr. Sunshine”) with Courteney Cox (the returning “Cougar Town”) in their old Thursday 8 p.m. “Friends” slot.

“To me, the biggest decision ABC has to make is how to lead off their Thursday night,” one rival exec says. “Do they go with comedies?”

CBS, meanwhile, could con-sider expanding its Wednesday block — but will likely just work with the one-hour block it has now.

How much scripted stuff will air on Friday?

Just as Saturday has long become a no-scripted-originals zone, the networks continue to limit their drama and comedy output on Friday.

Look for NBC and ABC to likely continue that trend with reality and newsmags, although the Peacock (which doesn’t program Sunday in the fall) may try at least one scripted skein. CBS could also stick with its strategy of femme-fronted dramas, while Fox — which hasn’t had a scripted Friday hit in years — remains the night’s biggest mystery.

How much announced for next season will be saved for January or later?

The networks have learned in recent years that there’s a limit to how much they can launch at once. And they’ve also seen that deliberate, well-orchestrated launches can work masterfully if saved for the right spot at midseason, including ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” behind “Desperate Housewives” in March 2005 and “Undercover Boss” behind the Super Bowl on CBS earlier this year.

And given the rapidly changing smallscreen world — and all that can happen in a matter of four months — some might argue that the whole idea of announcing a fall primetime schedule in May is antiquated.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” one exec says.

It may make sense for a high-profile serialized project to wait for a midseason slot where it can run uninterrupted, rather than start it in the fall and lose its momentum with numerous repeats or preemptions.

And there will be more midseason real estate in early 2011, as a pair of shows that auds have traditionally looked forward to early in the new year — ABC’s “Lost” and Fox’s “24” — won’t be around.

Also, an already declining “American Idol” could be even more vulnerable when acerbic judge Simon Cowell exits.

But then again, without traditional midseason-starting shows like “Lost” and “24,” the nets may decide to avoid announcing their winter/spring skeds altogether. Those lineups usually change by the time January rolls around, anyway.

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