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Eye unveils sked but it’s debatable

Net's season preems may air opposite election coverage

Debates be damned. Deciding it can wait no more as the Presidential Debate Commission hammers out its timetable for a series of face-offs between Al Gore and George W. Bush, CBS announced its fall season premiere dates Monday.

For now, the Eye will roll out its Tuesday lineup Oct. 3, its Thursday lineup Oct. 5 and its Wednesday lineup Oct. 11– despite the strong possibility that debates may occur on all three nights.

Bush has not yet agreed to the October debate program set by the non-partisan debate commission, which has had presidential debates scheduled for Oct. 3, 11 and 17, and a vice presidential meeting scheduled for Oct. 5 on the books for months. As a result, the nets have waited until the last minute to lock in their rollout plans (Daily Variety, Aug. 25).

But CBS could wait no longer. Network sources say the Eye is still willing to push back some of its premieres if the debates do, indeed, occur on those preset dates. But for now, with the debates still uncertain, CBS has opted to bow most of its lineup during the first week of the season, traditionally known as premiere week.

“Our affiliates want to know, our sales people want to know,” said Kelly Kahl, senior VP of program planning and scheduling. “We can’t put our world on hold.”

Premiere positioning

As it stands, CBS will counterprogram the closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics on Sunday, Oct. 1, with the 33rd season premiere of “60 Minutes,” followed by a preview of the Saturday night drama “That’s Life” at 8 p.m. and a new “CBS Sunday Movie” at 9. Sunday-night staple “Touched by an Angel” returns the following week, Oct. 9.

The network’s Monday-night lineup, including new series “Yes, Dear,” bows Oct. 2 — except for “Becker,” which is making way for an hourlong “Everybody Loves Raymond” premiere (shot on location in Italy). “Becker” returns Oct. 9.

Tuesday series return Oct. 3; but Wednesday’s lineup is delayed a week due to the 34th annual CMA Awards, which air Oct. 4. The Wednesday sked, which features the new laffers “Bette” and “Welcome to New York,” debuts the following week, Oct. 11. Thursdays are back Oct. 5; and Fridays, featuring the new skeins “The Fugitive” and “C.S.I.,” debut on Oct. 6.

CBS debuts “That’s Life” in its regular time period Oct. 7, as it premieres its Saturday-night sked (including new drama “The District”).

Going it alone

Barring the possibility of the presidential debates altering its plans, CBS appears to be the only network adhering to the traditional practice of launching the bulk of its schedule during premiere week. The season’s late start, caused by the Summer Olympics, along with baseball playoffs and the fall election season, has made this one of the most unusual season launches ever.

“It’s hard to have a regular premiere week (this year),” Kahl said. “If you’ve got baseball, it gets pretty tricky.”

Fox — faced with baseball pre-emptions throughout the month — has already announced rollout dates that are heavily staggered into November, while NBC, also forced to schedule around baseball, has only been able to firm up its Monday (Oct. 2), Saturday (Oct. 7) and Sunday (Oct. 8) dates.

As of now, NBC is expected to debut most of its Tuesday-night lineup Oct. 24 (except “DAG,” which may not bow until November), its Thursday night on Oct. 12 and its Friday night on Oct. 20. A two-hour “West Wing” may kick off Wednesday, Oct. 4.

ABC, meanwhile, plans to delay some of its premieres until late October in order to maximize promotion. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” however, will continue to air original episodes.

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