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ALPHABET HAILS HALL

No room for 'Ellen,' as web shifts Wed. sked

ABC is expected to unveil several midseason scheduling changes today, including slotting the as-yet-untitled Arsenio Hall romantic comedy into the Wednesday 9:30 p.m. slot held by veteran comedy “Ellen.” ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses is expected to confirm the schedule changes at the web’s presentation to the Television Critics Assn. press tour.

Hall’s comedy, which is being produced by DreamWorks Television, is said to be getting a seven-week run in the “Ellen” slot, which is sandwiched between the sophomore success “The Drew Carey Show” and the newsmagazine “PrimeTime Live.” The move will take effect in early March.

Walt Disney Television, which produces “Ellen” and is ABC’s parent company, was said to be less than thrilled with the decision to bench the veteran sitcom, although ABC president Robert Iger and Disney CEO Michael Eisner are said to have signed off on the move.

“Ellen” has already moved once on the schedule, and the studio is concerned about how a two-month absence from the sked so soon after its time-period switch will impact its ratings.

“Ellen” started the season in the 8 p.m. timeslot and averaged an 8.9 rating and 15 share in households, according to Nielsen. Since moving behind “Drew Carey,” the show’s ratings have gone up to a 9.9/16.

ABC is also planning on giving at least a six-week rest to the Steven Bochco drama “NYPD Blue,” which airs in the 10-11 p.m. Tuesday slot. Going into that slot in March will be the David Kelley drama “The Practice.” Bochco is said to be aware of the decision.

Kelley and 20th Century Fox Television, which is producing the legal dramawith David E. Kelley Prods., had been lobbying for the Wednesday 10-11 p.m. slot, but ABC News was apparently unwilling to consider benching “PrimeTime Live,” especially since the web is currently trying to renegotiate co-host Diane Sawyer’s contract.

Friday rumblings

ABC is also said to be considering moving its two freshman Friday-night comedies “Clueless” and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” to another night. One scenario has the sitcoms moving to Tuesday from 8-9 p.m. with veteran “Roseanne,” whose ratings have fallen this year, and freshman “Life’s Work” taking a breather. Another scenario has “Clueless” and “Sabrina” moving to Saturday night, probably in the 8-9 p.m. block.

The reason for possibly moving the two Friday-night comedies is partly driven by economics. ABC has on the bench 13 episodes of “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper” and 22 episodes of “Step by Step,” both veterans of the Friday lineup and both from Warner Bros. Television.

Demo rainbow

Meeting with TV critics along with other ABC execs on Wednesday, ABC TV Network president David Westin said the web had expected a decline in the ratings this season, although the 15% household drop is higher than expected. Westin added that the web is closer to No. 1 than No. 3 in the race for adults 18-49, and said he is pleased with the performance of freshman comedy “Spin City.”

On the executive front, Westin reiterated that the network has no plans to replace departing ABC Entertainment chairman Ted Harbert, who resigned on Tuesday and will exit on Feb. 15. Although he is exiting, Harbert was at ABC’s press tour Wednesday and will be on hand today with Entertainment prexy Jamie Tarses to discuss programming plans.

Cable action

On the cable front, Disney/ABC Cable president Geraldine Laybourne confirmed that the company is looking to launch a new cable web. Tentatively called “ABZ,” the web will look to reach viewers ages 2-20. Laybourne would not discuss other specifics on launch plans or programming.

Laybourne did confirm new kids shows for next year on ABC’s Saturday schedule, including the animated “Pepper Ann,” “Recess” and “101 Dalmatians.”

Drug-free partnership

Westin also unveiled a monthlong public service campaign in concert with Partnership for a Drug-Free America that will encompass all programming

divisions of ABC including news, entertainment and daytime.

The Alphabet web topper said that ABC shows would feature storylines focusing on anti-drug messages, and that the news division will feature timelydrug-related stories.

The campaign is set for March, and besides public service announcements by ABC stars, it will also include a March 30 ABC News Town Hall special. In that special, the network will go black for an undisclosed amount of time so that families can talk about drugs.

While Westin did not say how long the web would be black, he said there would be messages periodically flashed on the screen while no programming aired, encouraging dialogue between parents and children. March 30, Westin said, has become “ABC-D-Day.”

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