TV skeds suicide missions

Networks face challenges with returning series

It’s been famously said that no one knows anything in Hollywood, which helps TV executives unveiling new schedules — as various networks just did at their annual upfront extravaganzas — send new pawns into battle with high hopes, each one resembling a potential knight in shining armor.

Returning programs, however, offer less room for such unbridled optimism, and in several cases the networks’ redeployment of those pieces — dispatching them on what look like suicide missions — reflects some of the waste for which the industry often earns hostility (albeit usually via anonymous comments) from even its own denizens.

In particular, the networks’ new-found fascination with sitcoms would appear to represent an over-correction for the form’s decline in earlier years, before hits like “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” renewed faith in the genre.

As with so many things, though, showbiz folk have likely overdone it, seemingly lulled into a false sense of security by modest signs of life and the knowledge that advertisers — through the years, seemingly an easily bedazzled lot — covet the younger audiences associated with these programs.

Among the major head-scratchers in this year’s schedule-setting derby, perhaps inevitably, are the returning programs being shifted to Fridays, a night where lower TV usage has made gaining traction a challenge. It’s hard to imagine fresh viewers finding NBC’s comedies “Community” and “Whitney,” or Fox’s Kiefer Sutherland vehicle “Touch” in their new slots. Much more likely, a portion of those who had supported the shows — especially among prized young adults, who become more elusive heading into weekends — will simply melt away.

Similar misgivings surround ABC’s move to Tuesdays of “Happy Endings” and “The B in Apartment No. 23” — two shows that, despite vocal admirers, didn’t exactly flourish ratings-wise with the advantage of a “Modern Family” lead-in. And NBC News’ “Rock Center,” a low-rated newsmagazine seems an odd fit for the hallowed Thursday hour NBC once dominated with “ER” and “L.A. Law.”

Of course, there’s traditionally a bait-and-switch element to all of this — an elaborate shell game, where networks schedule an abundance of scripted fare to woo media buyers and boost the upfront harvest, then quickly replace the failures with reality shows.

Still, that gets us back to the whole waste issue, and whether it really makes more sense to throw a second season of something like “Whitney” to the wolves — complete with promotion and production costs — only to possibly signal for the bullpen after a few episodes. Why not skip straight to the main event, if that’s the plan, minus all the fuss and pretense?

In this context, it’s no wonder CBS’ spiel emphasized the benefits of stability that come with being the most-watched network, undertaking carefully calculated risks. Indeed, the fall’s savviest scheduling gambles involve relocating first-year shows with growth potential to more prominent berths, with the Eye migrating “2 Broke Girls” into the 9 p.m. slot anchoring its Monday comedy block, mirroring what ABC has done by asking “Revenge” to replace “Desperate Housewives” Sundays.

“We own the best environment on television to launch new shows,” CBS Entertainment prez Nina Tassler crowed with considerable justification, calling the blessing of established lead-ins for its newly developed hatchlings “a luxury the other guys simply don’t have.”

By contrast, for a rebuilding network like NBC, the dearth of strong lead-ins obviously limits scheduling options, although that’s hardly reason to embrace strategies with little precedent for success.

If any of these presumed sacrificial lambs work — heck, if they’re still around much past Christmas — I will happily and freely eat these words. And to be fair, the past is littered with unexpected surprises that even the networks behind them didn’t remotely anticipate: for instance, two breakout hits introduced Fridays, “The X-Files” and “CSI.”

Yet assuming it’s actually possible to know something about Hollywood — or that history can offer any guide to the future — one needn’t be Sherlock Holmes to deduce where the fall’s early vacancies might be. Because even in a digital, DVR age, in evaluating the prospects of primetime real estate, there’s still plenty to be said for having the right location.

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