Fate turns the dial for TV biz

THE TECTONIC PLATES are shifting in network TV, and the media landscape is suddenly offering up new vistas. For those nets whose tilt is suddenly upward, execs are hailing the changes as a “watermark”; for those whose operations are shifting downward, execs are full of plausible explanations. But there’s little doubt that scrambling is going on behind the scenes.

One thing is certain: So many shake-ups in so short a period as the past three months are rare in TV land.

Few, for example, quite grasped just what a combined effect the end of “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Frasier” would have on NBC’s Thursday night schedule, or just what tremors a reality wunderkind like “American Idol” on Fox could have on its fortunes. Or that the network news divisions would all be undergoing radical change and facing increased scrutiny of their operations all at once.

Perhaps most surprising is the hole that ABC seems to be digging out of after a decade of programming disappointments and third- and fourth-place showings in the ratings.

Thanks to a “Stepford Wives”-inspired sizzler called “Desperate Housewives” — who knew all those evangelicals would be so hooked on sexual shenanigans? — and a high-concept drama called “Lost” — who would have thought anything having to do with a plane crash would work in post-9/11 America? — the Alphabet has a lot to cheer about.

Just when you thought procedural and forensic dramas were the only way to go, high concepts and suds are in. Expect other nets to quickly start sending in the clones.

As in the film biz, it’s usually the previous executive regime — the one dismissed in disgrace for not having turned things around — that deserves some of the credit at ABC. Lloyd Braun, who segued to Yahoo, and Susan Lyne, who landed at Martha Stewart’s OmniMedia, should take a bow.

No one is probably more surprised or relieved about all this, though, than Bob Iger, who has labored as Michael Eisner’s No. 2 for what must seem like eons, taking the rap for or at least sharing the blame for bad programming choices, battles with partners Pixar and Miramax and generally not doing enough to protect the Disney brand.

But last week the low-key Disney prexy-COO got to tell Wall Streeters that ABC will be back in the black in 2005, buoyed by its newly vibrant sked and a lot of ad inventory left to sell come January.

In back-to-back presentations at dueling Gotham media conferences, Iger called the net’s push into profit “a watermark” and said he believes the “success is real, not a flash in the pan.”

Asked if the burnished ABC could boost his odds of winning the top job at the Mouse House when CEO Eisner steps down next summer, Iger shrugged and said, “I’m focused on performance.”

Meanwhile, other changes among the Big Four also show how fickle is the hand of fate.

NBC has not been able to stanch the bleeding from its once-invincible Thursday night lineup, having just lost the November sweeps in demos to the geezer net CBS. The Eye has adroitly gotten a facelift thanks largely to its “CSI” juggernaut, its sitcom stalwart “Everybody Loves Raymond” and such dramas as “NCIS” and “Joan of Arcadia.”

And Fox will almost certainly have to wait for its “American Idol” franchise in January to hope to gain any real traction.

Practically no one at any net is having success coming up with a viable sitcom. But remember: Just when you think you’ve seen enough reality-comedy hybrids to last a lifetime, someone’s probably going to seat some funny folks on a living-room couch once again, and auds are going to laugh.

Another earthquake could be just around the corner.

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