Webs gone wild

Nets throw out rulebook in fall season switcheroo

The Big Six have been hit with a case of SARS: Severe Acute Reshuffling Syndrome.

After a couple of years of relative scheduling stability, webheads last week threw away the rulebook as they unveiled their new fall lineups to Madison Ave.

ABC blew up its entire lineup, completely overhauling no less than five full nights. NBC shocked ad buyers by shifting Friday powerhouse “Law & Order: SVU” to Tuesdays in a bid to shore up the latter night.

Even CBS, which has long preached the gospel of stability, joined the switchapalooza, sending vets like “King of Queens” and “JAG” to do battle on new nights.

“Each of the webs has been remarkably aggressive,” says Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth. “When I was in network TV, there was a value for many advertisers to keep as stable a schedule as possible. But that was years ago, and times have changed. The competitive landscape has changed radically.”

Indeed, all these surprises shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Network TV is in desperate need of new hits, particularly on the comedy side. The more chances webheads take, the likelier they are to find the next “CSI.”

What’s more, execs are well aware that some tectonic shifts are at hand in primetime.

A year from now, NBC will lose both “Friends” and “Frasier.”

Their exits, combined with potential farewells for other longtime tentpoles such as “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “NYPD Blue,” will result in gaping holes for some nets — and golden opportunites for others looking to establish new powerhouse programs.

“There’s a chance we could see a changing of the guard, if not this year, then the year after,” says Fox TV Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow.

Indeed, the broadcast webs are entering one of the most competitive phases in their history. As the nets slice and dice a smaller piece of the Nielsen pie, the difference between first and fourth (or even sixth) has shrunk.

That means the ratings crown has become even more of a jump ball.

As Fox proved in the second half of the season, it takes just one or two megahits to propel you from worst to first. Shuffle around that schedule a bit, and dreams of dominance aren’t too far-fetched.

It’s obvious that’s one reason why CBS decided to go a little wild with its schedule next fall. With the Eye just six-tenths of a ratings point behind NBC among adults 18-49, CBS — which already has a solid grip on first place among all viewers — believes it’s in the hunt.

“Now to me, that’s within striking distance,” CBS chairman Leslie Moonves says. “Not making any claims, but a break or two here or there, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Peacock entertainment topper Jeff Zucker doesn’t seem worried.

“Next year is no more pivotal than the last three years,” he says. “Everyone likes to talk about the end of NBC’s dominance. It hasn’t happened.”

In any case, the real demo battle could be Fox vs. NBC. Fox has been leading among young viewers since the start of the calendar year and hopes to carry that momentum into the fall.

“I expect the race will be tight between NBC and Fox,” Grushow says.

As a result, the moves networks made last week could have repercussions for years to come.

If NBC’s decision to remake the BBC’s bawdy sexcom “Coupling” doesn’t pan out, for example, or its new Tuesday laffers fall flat, the Peacock will have lost its final shots to groom a comedy successor to “Friends.”

Likewise, Fox’s decision to attack on Thursday nights with two strong youth-appeal dramas was made more in anticipation of a “Friends”-free Thursday a year from now than with any hopes of suddenly becoming a force on the night.

The fall shuffle was inevitable, coming after one of the most bizarre TV seasons in history.

Just a year ago, it appeared that the broadcast webs were on the road to stability. The fierce competitive landscape had supposedly convinced them to stick with the status quo, rather than further confuse viewers with a constant stream of change.

Then the season began. And all hell broke loose.

Turns out competition didn’t breed stability. It bred insanity, as the nets ripped apart their schedules on a weekly basis.

By February, the webs were throwing anything on the air in the hopes of juicing their numbers even a little bit. Bad reality shows would appear, then disappear almost as fast. Michael Jackson made an appearance on three of the four broadcast webs. Regular series like “Good Morning Miami” would air two weeks in a row, then vanish for a month at a time.

TV Guide’s listings are now virtually useless, as the nets regularly make last-minute changes. Yet viewers, perhaps complacent after years of tube watching, haven’t revolted. Yet. And that’s enough to convince webheads that they won’t be penalized for blowing up their skeds this fall.

“I think the viewers have a hard time keeping up with anything, even if there are not a lot of changes,” Moonves says. “When the fall season starts there’s a lot of confusion. You try to keep stability where you can and then you play accordingly.

Adds Zucker: “There’s a lot to be said for stability, but the audience ends up finding good shows.”

One sure sign that the networks were looking to shake things up is evidenced on how last-minute the nets locked in their fall schedules this year. Most webs were juggling their lineups until the last possible minute.

ABC, for example, had told the talent from the 20th/Imagine pilot “The Big House,” including star Kevin Hart and exec producer Stephen Engel, that their laffer had been picked up for fall. Alphabet web had a change of heart the day before it was to announce its sked, leaving the show’s producers and cast awfully confused.

“Sometimes we are juggling the schedule at the 11th hour,” ABC Entertainment Television chairman Lloyd Braun said. “That was the case this season.”

The sked shakeup wasn’t the only thing raising eyebrows in Gotham last week. Other trends of the fall:

  • Studios like 20th and Warner Bros. TV sold plenty of shows to their sibling nets; WBTV actually supplied the WB with all of its new fare.

But more interesting were the numerous cases where nets completely disregarded the needs of sister studios.

ABC gave its best timeslots to Universal and WBTV, while making Disney-owned Touchstone shoulders the burden of launching shows in killer Thursday and Fridays spots.

And Viacom-owned UPN bought all four of its new comedies from AOL-Time Warner-owned WBTV.

  • The comedy drought could be over. New laffers like “Whoopi,” “Coupling,” “It’s All Relative” and “A Minute with Stan Hooper” are already generating buzz.

There’ll also be more chances for comedy to succeed. Fox has expanded to a 12-comedy sked, while ABC is up to 10 per week. UPN doubled its laff quotient, from four to eight.

And after a few years of being a laugh-free zone, Fridays will be filled with yuks, as ABC, Fox and the WB both go after younger eyeballs with sitcoms.

  • Fueling hopes that a comedy turnaround could be in the works is the fact that most of the new laffers are traditional multicamera shows. Critics love single-cam skeins (think “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” or “SportsNight”), but save for the occassional “Malcolm in the Middle,” viewers rarely seem as interested.

This year, ABC, CBS and NBC completely avoided single-cam comedies for the fall. Even Fox, which has had the most success with the form, gave its best comedy slots to multi-cam shows.

  • The networks all strained to convince advertisers that they haven’t gone reality-crazy. Still, Fox, WB and ABC have more unscripted entertainment skeins than last season, while CBS has one fewer and NBC remains the same.

  • Nets finally seem to be making progress on their promises to diversify.

Fox’s fall sked features no fewer than six skeins with minority leads, and they’re spread out over three nights rather than lumped together. Net’s biggest show, “American Idol,” has also been a showcase for diversity (one word: Ruuuben!) NBC’s lily-white laffers will get a dash of color with the addition of a Whoopi Goldberg half-hour and, later in the season, a comedy starring “Saturday Night Live’s” Tracy Morgan. While the WB ditched Latino-led “Greetings from Tuscon,” the Frog added a trio of laffers with strong minority casts; UPN added a pair.

  • David E. Kelley hasn’t lost his mojo after all. Headed into upfront week, there was a real shot both “The Practice” and “Boston Public” would be canceled and that CBS might pass on his new drama, “The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire.”

Instead, all three shows will be on the air this fall.

  • Webheads will be getting a lot of hugs next fall. Under topper Roth, Warner Bros. sold a jaw-dropping 15 shows to the nets, for a grand total of 28 — with at least two shows set up at each of the six nets.

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