Nets turn their back on reality

Scripted dramas, comedies again find favor as fall pilots

After a season marked by a paucity of new breakout hits — and an excess of over-the-top reality shows — webheads are getting ready to start all over again.

With most of the 125-plus pilots cast and ready to be shot, programmers are beginning to focus on what they did right this year — and what the other guys screwed up.

In interviews with the Big Four entertainment chiefs, several major mea culpas emerged as the programmers discussed what went wrong this season and why they’ll do better next fall:

  • They threw on way too many “Survivor” and “Bachelor” clones this spring, execs quietly admit. So next fall, look for more scripted series and less nonfiction fare.

  • It was foolish to make most dramas close-ended hours that focused on procedure rather than heart, programmers concede. Guess what: There are more character-driven dramas planned.

  • Nets tried to save money last year by casting lesser lights in new shows. So this spring, they’re giving anyone who’s ever worked in TV his or her own series, including Heather Locklear, Charlie Sheen, Andy Richter, Randy Quaid, Steven Weber, Kirsten Johnson, Rob Lowe and Tom Selleck.

Beyond the broad lessons learned from the season past, each network has its own problems and needs to deal with as programmers head into the May schedule announcements.

NBC

Peacock entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker expects to add just three comedies and two dramas to his lineup in September — a conservative approach that speaks to the fact that NBC will very likely finish the season first in adults 18-49.

“Most of our lineup is working,” he says. “We don’t have that many holes.”

Comedy remains the priority at NBC, with “Friends” and “Frasier” both set to end their runs a year from now. Zucker has banned single-camera comedies from his pilot roster in favor of more traditional multicam laffers.

Fox

For the first time in a few years, the net will head into May not having to offer any apologies to advertisers. After a rough start to the 2002-03 season, Fox is the net with all the momentum headed into next year, thanks to hits like “American Idol,” “24” and “The Simpsons.”

“Our goal is to have a balanced schedule that uses unscripted shows to help scripted series,” says Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman.

Reality skeins like “Idol” and “Joe Millionaire” have turned Fox into a magnet for young females, and Berman is keen on getting the gals to stick around.

“Fox had great success with shows like ‘(Beverly Hills,) 90210’ and ‘Party of Five,’ and we want to speak to that tradition,” she says, pointing to such drama pilots as “No Place Like Home” and “Skin” as sudsers with mucho femme appeal.

CBS

While no net had a blockbuster scripted skein this season, the Eye came closest with “CSI: Miami,” a spinoff of “CSI” that, along with new Thursday drama “Without a Trace,” put the net in first place among all viewers.

For the fall, it’s expected the Eye will again concentrate on dramas, adding at least one new hour on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights.

The one big question mark is whether CBS will drop its Sunday movie in favor of series. Such a move is still considered a long shot, but not out of the realm of possibility.

ABC

The Alphabet’s fall momentum petered out a bit in the spring, with Fox’s reality juggernauts and some bad scheduling decisions halting ABC’s climb from the Nielsen basement.

That said, ABC execs believe the net has some solid comedy building blocks with shows like “8 Simple Rules…” and “According to Jim.”

“We believe we can expand our comedy blocks next fall,” says entertainment prexy Susan Lyne, whose development roster includes a slew of family-oriented laffers. Don’t be shocked if new comedies end up on Friday night.

ABC has had no luck launching new dramas this season. But the net believes it’s on the right track now, with a push toward hours with more heart.

“What we see way too much of on TV now are shows in which characters don’t change from week to week or even year to year,” Lyne says. “The best way for us to succeed is with character-driven dramas…where viewers have a real desire to see what will happen next.”

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