Net skeds: more like guidelines really

Webheads altering line-ups as conditions change

There’s a good chance many of the schedules unveiled later this month will be written in pencil.

Time was, nets took a “set it and forget it” approach to schedule-making. Altering a lineup after it had been announced to advertisers rarely happened, since it was seen as a sign of weakness or lack of faith in a network’s programming strategy.

But with the Nielsen competition tighter than ever, webheads aren’t letting pride get in the way anymore.

“Why should the schedule be set in stone?” asks one top-level net exec. “If conditions change, there’s no reason the schedule shouldn’t change to reflect the new reality. I don’t think pride serves anyone well if it means losing a ton of money.”

That’s the thinking Fox employed this year when it decided to abandon several sked moves (and even a few shows) it had announced last May as part of its ambitious year-round scheduling initiative. Similarly, in July 2003, CBS decided planned fall laffer “The Stones” wasn’t ready for primetime after all — and called in “Becker” to replace it.

For the upcoming season, NBC in particular could decide to switch strategies post-upfront. The net announces its sked before all its rivals — a tradition that started when it was in first place, but leaves it vulnerable now that it’s in fourth.

“The race is so tight that one wrong move could make the difference between first and fourth,” says an insider.

Still, there are risks in making last-minute shifts.

Advertisers, for example, have the right to ask for a credit (or their money back) if a show they bought shifts timeslots or is pushed to midseason. And some believe that overthinking a sked can be harmful, arguing that webs should play their own game.

“It’s a fear-driven business,” says one network suit. “The more information you have, the more afraid you get and the more changes you make — generally to the detriment of your schedule.”