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New year, new hope for 10 o’clock

NBC eyes comedies on Thursdays, ABC on Wednesdays

The year 2010 was not a good one for the 10 o’clock hour at the broadcast nets.

It kicked off with the low-rated final weeks of the “The Jay Leno Show” on NBC and wrapped with soft — and in some cases record-low — deliveries for new fall fare across the dial.

Uninspired drama offerings and heavy playback on digital video recorders certainly contributed to the hour’s woes, while cable stepped up to entice auds with the likes of the Situation, the Kardashians and some “Real Housewives.”

But as 2011 checks in, there may be some hope for the Big Three.

Both NBC and ABC have announced plans to try half-hour comedies in the 10 o’clock hour in 2011, with the Peacock first up later this month, and the Alphabet giving it a shot in April.

While the sked moves are logical extensions of current two-hour comedy blocks, the extra laffs also will air in timeslots that have been severely underperforming for their respective networks.

And if the networks are smart, these moves will be just the beginning of experimentation in the 10 o’clock hour.

ABC, NBC and even top-rated CBS need to come up with new ways to engage viewers in primetime’s final hour — especially the under-40 crowd, which is more likely to reflexively move to either cable or DVR playback during the hour.

This fall, on a Monday through Friday basis, Nielsen estimates the Big Three are averaging a combined 7.5 rating in 18-49 during the 10 o’clock hour (down 3% year to year), while basic cable as a group dominates, with its 20.7 rating up 1% from last year. DVR playback, meanwhile, accounts for a 4.4 rating in the 10 o’clock hour — up 13% from last year.

While the broadcasters are within 3% of their year-ago total, they should be doing better, since NBC was especially deficient in the fourth quarter of 2009 with “Leno.” On a Monday-through-Friday basis, the Peacock is up 24%, while CBS is off 12% and ABC has declined by 7%.

One of the biggest reasons why the 10 o’clock hour has proven so difficult for broadcasters is that the drama and newsmag genres that occupy most of those hours are in a down cycle. At the same time, the hot genres of comedy and reality — which account for 9 of the season’s top 10 primetime entertainment series — have traditionally been relegated to the 8-10 p.m. hours.

The nets’ more adventurous attempts in the hour (think “Swingtown,” “Love Monkey” and “Eastwick”) have been soundly rejected by viewers, leading to more safe choices in the well-worn milieu of cops, lawyers and doctors. And this fall, that meant the procedural likes of “Hawaii Five-0,” “Chase” and “Detroit 1-8-7,” among others.

On Jan. 20, NBC will move current 8:30 p.m. laffer “30 Rock” to 10 p.m., while rookie “Outsourced” will move back an hour from 9:30 to 10:30. In expanding its comedy presence this way, NBC will be able to launch newbie “Perfect Couples” at 8:30 while sliding in third-year laffer “Parks and Recreation,” which had been sitting on the bench in the fall while awaiting a timeslot, at 9:30.

Though NBC’s comedies don’t figure to win in 18-49 over either of the hour’s solid dramas (CBS’ “The Mentalist” and ABC’s “Private Practice”), they should be competitive and improve upon the meager 1.6 rating in 18-49 that “The Apprentice” averaged in the fall — which was down 16% from Leno’s primetime show during the same time last year.

The same holds true for ABC in April, when “Happy Endings” bows at 10 p.m. behind “Cougar Town.” Even if it’s not all that successful, it’s hard to imagine the Alphabet not improving upon its weak delivery in the hour this fall.

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