Goodbye to weakest links

Webheads race to the wire to plug troubled slots

In the golden age of the Big Three, webheads could count on a default crowd tuning into even their worst timeslots. No longer.

These days, dead timeslots are just that — dead. While buzz will still center on which shows might land plum slots (post-“Friends,” post-“The Simpsons”), those are easy choices.

You want a real read on how the nets might reverse their misfortunes next fall? Take a look at their reconstruction plans on weak nights.

NBC must rethink Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. ABC has its hands full on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. CBS should rejigger Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Fox will play with Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

As for the weblets, WB will remix Fridays and Sundays, while UPN needs shots on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Here’s a network-by-network look at what strategies may be unveiled this week as execs convene in New York to announce their fall skeds:

ABC

It’s not easy being the Alphabet web these days. Last year, pundits wondered how many segs of powerhouse gamer “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” ABC might sked.

This season, they’re wondering the same thing — but in a very different vein. Last year’s white knight has become this year’s problem child.

But it’s unclear whether the net could do better with anything besides “Whose Line” and “Millionaire” in those difficult slots.

Unfortunately for ABC, the net has few other strong anchor shows. Neither “Dharma & Greg” nor “The Drew Carey Show” act like the kind of crucial tentpoles they once were. That means the Alphabet doesn’t have any firm launching pads for any of its new laffers.

Nonetheless, ABC is expected to air four comedies on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights. “Dharma,” “Drew,” “Spin City” and “My Wife and Kids” are the only sure things for the two nights.

Among new series, Jason Alexander starrer “Bob Patterson” is a sure thing, and could even immediately serve as an anchor on Tuesday or Wednesday.

As for Fridays, ABC could go in two directions: New dramas (“Thieves,” “Alias”) or “The Wonderful World of Disney.” But a “Disney” move is unlikely.

Oh, and those “Millionaires?” While some pundits think ABC could bring the count down to two segs, most execs think it’s more likely the net will stick with a safer three-pack.

CBS

“Survivor” has been a real success story for the Eye, which has seen dramatic growth this midseason.

But the outback gamer has also hidden some of CBS’ serious problems elsewhere in the week — such as Wednesday, which is down 15% this season with viewers.

What’s more, the Eye is expected to drop its Wednesday movie, which means nothing on the night will return next season. With only one comedy night (Monday), the Eye may try — yet again — to open Wednesday for laughs.

But so far, most of the buzz coming from CBS has been in the drama arena. The Richard Dreyfuss starrer “The Education of Max Bickford” is all but a sure thing, while “Citizen Baines” (with James Cromwell) could also find its way on the sked.

Now that “CSI” has moved to Thursdays, the net’s Friday night is also up in the air. And with only “The District” returning, Saturday nights could also see big changes.

NBC

The Peacock’s Jeff Zucker, marking his upfront debut as an entertainment topper, hasn’t been shy in pinpointing NBC’s trouble spots.

Priority one: Sunday nights, where the network is down 16% year-to-year. The network, which has chopped its Sunday movie, must now fill three new hours on the night.

“Weakest Link” is one likely hour, while the new dramas “Undercover” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” could fill out the evening.

Mondays also need a shot in the arm, but may only get a poke: “Weakest Link” will probably remain, along with the return of “Third Watch” and new drama “Crossing Jordan.”

NBC’s sked might be whittled down to eight comedies –a far cry from just a few years ago, when the Peacock boasted 16 laffers. “Inside Schwartz” is the only other sure comedy (and may land the coveted post- “Friends” slot).

Fox

The network that once couldn’t launch a sitcom to save its life now boasts an embarrassment of riches: The net is expected to unveil a fall schedule with 10 half-hour laffers — more than any other net.

And what may be the gutsiest move by any of the webs, Fox is expected to transport “Malcolm in the Middle” to Wednesday nights, potentially leading off a four-laffer lineup (although it’s also possible the net will make Tuesday its all-comedy night).

New laffers destined to join the Fox sked include “Greg the Bunny” (which has a 13-episode order), “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” and “Undeclared.”

It’s not all smiles at Fox, however: The network has some tough choices to make the rest of the week. Does it rehaul Thursdays with a low-budget soap (“American Town,” “In the Weeds”) and a reality skein (“Temptation Island 2,” “Boot Camp 2”)?

UPN

“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.”

Did we mention “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”? While not an absolute game changer, UPN’s acquisition of “Buffy” — and, as expected, “Star Trek: Enterprise” — will help.

Still, those are just two programs. UPN must still figure out a way to fill out Tuesday night (where “Buffy” will presumably air), unless it also acquires “Angel.”

The WB

Without “Buffy” and potentially “Angel,” Tuesdays could be wide open at the Frog. But “Smallville” should soften the blow.

Instead, the real focus is on Fridays (and to a lesser degree, Sundays), where a comedy overhaul is in the works. The WB hopes to resurrect the teen comedy franchise on Friday nights.

“TGIF” refugee “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” returns, potentially paired with the spinoff “Witchwright Hall.” Other comedies making the grade include “Maybe I’m Adopted” and “The Young Person’s Guide to Becoming a Rock Star.”

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