The road ahead: Seven for ’07

TV business braces for sharp twists this year

Net execs aren’t crooning “Auld Lang Syne” with much joy, as 2007 rings in with mounting challenges.

Comedy’s still in crisis. The Internet still looks like the Wild West for broadcasters. Programming costs continue to climb while advertisers are growing more impatient with network erosion.

Then there’s that not-so-little fear of a strike.

Not all is grim, however, and some looming issues are just par for the course in this ever-evolving business.

As webheads chug a few antacids to start the new year, here are seven subjects to keep an eye on in ’07:

The nets will go on a programming diet.

NBC already trumpeted its intention to scale back on scripted programming by saying it wants to air nothing but reality and quizshows in the 8 p.m. hour. Mandating a certain kind of programming for a timeslot makes little sense, but the idea of reducing costs by cutting back on scripted fare is likely to gain traction.

That’s because nets are desperately trying to come up with new business models at a time when the Internet is siphoning away both viewers and ad dollars.

In addition to adding more low-cost unscripted fare, nets may start slashing entire genres. Original movies continue to struggle, while concert specials may become extinct — especially following a year in which even big names like Madonna couldn’t attract eyeballs.

It’s report card time for the CW and MyNetworkTV.

Thrown together in less than nine months, the CW and MyNet went on the air with programs that weren’t even originally developed for them.

But that’s no longer an excuse. The CW, which has held its own despite low-rated newcomers and aging returnees, will hit the May upfronts with its first slate of homegrown fare.

With MyNet’s stripped sudsers barely registering in the Nielsens, News Corp. is expected to change the netlet’s programming strategy by summer: A likely move would be to reduce reliance on English-language telenovelas.

Comedy and animation will be tested yet again.

Although no net other than Fox has launched a hit animated primetime skein since the 1960s, CBS will soon give it another try with “Creature Comforts.”

A U.S. adaptation of the hit U.K. skein (from the Aardman animation house), “Creature Comforts” could, if successful, spawn a wave of such projects. If it stumbles, expect the non-Fox nets to once again shy away from any new toons.

As for laffers, it could be a do-or-die season for comedy writers and producers — as well as the studio and network execs behind the shows. The nets are airing the fewest number of sitcoms since the early days of television, and with no new breakout hits, there’s no sign that next fall will look any different.

However, entries like CBS’ “Rules of Engagement” and ABC’s “Knights of Prosperity” could turn the tide. Still, come May, the nets will likely again be debating whether mainstream auds are turned off by too many quirky single-cam comedies.

TiVo may finally help the networks.

Webheads have been worrying about the impact of digital video recorders for years, fretting that their ratings have been negatively impacted because Nielsen couldn’t keep up with new technologies. Even when the ratings giant started incorporating TiVo usage into its numbers, advertisers still refused to acknowledge eyeballs that watched shows after they originally aired.

All this could change in 2007. Nielsen is expected to further tweak its sample, adding more TiVo homes while improving the count of out-of-home viewing by, for example, including college students. What’s more, network execs believe they’re close to getting Madison Ave. to recognize the legitimacy of TiVo-boosted ratings.

NBC: Changing of the guard.

It’s been clear for months that Jeff Zucker is all but certain to replace Bob Wright as the ultimate boss at NBC. Barring a surprise twist in the storyline, a timetable for the succession could even be put in place in January.

Once he’s given the brass ring, a sort of Zucker 2.0 may emerge in the form of a more patient exec.

While he’s amassed a chorus of critics over the years (most of them outside NBC), Zucker is a talented dealmaker with a knack for bold strokes. A few big announcements or acquisitions, and Zucker could remake his image as effectively as Bob Iger has done in the post-Eisner era.

Zucker’s likely rise could also mean good news for some NBC execs in Burbank.

Marc Graboff, the NBC West Coast prexy who’s essentially been Zucker’s No. 2, will become more powerful in overseeing the day-to-day of the network.

NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly might becomemore secure in his gig. His contract expires in the spring, but — thanks to “Heroes” and “The Office” — current betting is that Zucker will ask him to stay on.

If, for some reason, Reilly doesn’t stick around, look for programmer Katherine Pope to take his place.

“American Idol” will bring shake-ups.

“Idol” will once again put fourth-place Fox back into the game — and likely crush some of the competish in the process. But at some point, “Idol” will cool off. The question is when?

It has defied odds by rising in the ratings five years into its run — and could do so again this year.

The pressure is on for “Idol” and fellow January returnee “24,” as well as new shows like “Drive,” since none of Fox’s new fall shows made the grade.

Should “Idol” take a big dip in the Nielsen numbers, Fox’s adults 18-49 crown — which it has held for the past two seasons — figures to be up for grabs.

But if the show’s a hit again, rivals will just shrug — and hold out secret hopes that 2008 will bring its decline.

All bets are off if there’s a WGA strike.

The contract deadline is still 10 months away, but if scribes walk off the job, no other predictions really matter. A strike — if it went on long enough — could prove devastating to the network business.

Whether the strike talk is sincere or saber-rattling, in a few months, nobody in TV land will be talking about anything else.