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Upfronts: Networks Embrace Changes in Scheduling Patterns

The Big 4 do their best to keep pace with cable

The Big Four hear the footsteps of cable and have responded with an especially aggressive programming strategy for next season.

They’re trying to capture the buzz that pay-TV has generated with high-concept dramas and shorter-order series by investing in event television of their own. And they have loaded up on the one genre that cable has been unable to master: comedy.

The two-pronged approach was evident as each network — even traditional CBS — laid out its fall lineup last week.

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will air a whopping 13 new comedies in the fall, the most of any year in at least a decade. Of course, a big reason why is that only two of the 10 laffers to bow last fall are coming back — and neither Fox’s “The Mindy Project” nor ABC’s “The Neighbors” is what you’d call a hit.

But with new projects starring Michael J. Fox, Robin Williams and Rebel Wilson, there’s a sense that the nets are getting more serious about comedy.

The Big Four are also being bolder in their sitcom scheduling, with ABC (“The Goldbergs” on Tuesday), CBS (“The Crazy Ones” on Thursday) and NBC (“Sean Saves the World” on Thursday) all plopping new comedies in the 9 o’clock half-hour with no established show airing behind them — something that’s happened on any network only once in the previous eight years (ABC’s “Modern Family” in 2009).

And the taboo of airing back-to-back new comedies? That’s a thing of the past now that, in addition to ABC, NBC and Fox once again this fall, CBS has done it for the first time.

Another trend in half-hours is the pairing of multi-camera and single-camera comedies back-to-back. CBS on Thursday features a new single-cam surrounding a trio of multi-cams, opposite the reverse on NBC: a multi-cam surrounded by three single-cams.

The networks have done a better job of counterprogramming each other this time around. Last year, there were five hours where they went head-to-head in comedy — including Tuesday at 9 where three went at it. This year, though, it’s just three hours — and in the two where it happens on Thursday, each half-hour on CBS and NBC pits a single-cam vs. a multi-cam. But to achieve this, the nets have also produced another rarity, with both ABC on Tuesday and Fox on Friday slotting dramas leading into comedies.

We’re also seeing the demolition of nights that are clearly struggling. ABC starts from scratch on Tuesday, and NBC is returning only one half-hour (“Parks and Recreation”) to Thursday and just one hour (“Law & Order: SVU”) to Wednesday.

As for event television, the nets hope that limited-run projects can help offset ratings declines for repeats. This will also allow the Big Four to more closely mimic cable in the viewer-friendly way those networks schedule their dramas, with uninterrupted weeks of episodes.

ABC

The Alphabet is leaving its hottest shows in place, taking big swings in some of its most troubled timeslots and smartly reducing its reliance on “Dancing With the Stars.”

Four comedies and four dramas join the fall lineup, and while this many shows could be tough to promote, only one returning show shifts nights, which is a plus.

Tuesday, which features half of the net’s new programs in the fall, opens with “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” which has male and family appeal, and can be promoted during sister net ESPN’s Monday Night Football. The choice to go with two new family comedies after “SHIELD” is a bit of a head-scratcher, but if the new drama is the hit ABC is hoping, it should funnel a sizable audience into the laffers. There are three open hours on Tuesday because ABC wisely eliminated the Dancing With the Stars results show, which automatically brought an older, heavily female skew to the night.

Opening Thursday with “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” is a surprise. ABC has had no luck in this timeslot in recent years despite the lure of “Grey’s Anatomy” at 9.

CBS

CBS moved aggressively in comedy with four new half-hours — including two single-cams — and expanded its Thursday block. Marketers can zero in on Monday and Thursday, which are home to all five of the net’s new programs.

Wednesday and Sunday remain intact, while proven crime shows are on the move to fill ailing timeslots on Tuesday (“Person of Interest”) and Friday (“Hawaii Five-0”).

CBS kept “The Big Bang Theory” leading off Thursday rather than put it at 9, where it would do bigger numbers but also leave the beginning of the night vulnerable. The network probably wanted “Two and a Half Men” at 9:30 opposite NBC’s “Michael J. Fox Show.”

Sandwiched between the vets are “The Millers” (multi-cam) and “The Crazy Ones” (single-cam). CBS feels the latter, with Williams’ return to TV after 30 years, can open an hour, and the former gets the best lead-in on television. (CBS has an insurance policy with a full 22-episode order of “Mike & Molly.”)

The net should post gains on Thursday, even if “The Millers” can’t approach what “Two and a Half Men” did this season, because an hour of comedy at 9 should hold more of the opening hour’s audience than drama “Person of Interest.”

On Monday, Chuck Lorre’s “Mom” at 9:30 should mesh well with 9 p.m.’s “2 Broke Girls,” and Jerry Bruckheimer event series “Hostages” is a good way to close the night.

Fox

Fox has limited bandwidth as it tries to rebound this fall, but it has made the most of its assets, with a schedule that’s heavier on comedy than in recent years.

On Monday, “Bones” does OK, but Fox realizes the night represents its only opportunity to find a new drama hit. Bones will start the season on Monday, to help launch new drama “Sleepy Hollow,” and will then be deployed on Friday, which helps that night and also opens up Monday for J.J. Abrams drama Almost Human, which launches after the World Series.

Joining “Bones” on Friday is the family comedy hour of newbie “Enlisted” and third-year “Raising Hope.” This low-key hour could serve these softer comedies well; they also could piggyback off ABC’s family comedies at 8.

NBC

Six shows join the sked this fall, and four of six scripted returnees change timeslots as NBC shuffles the deck.

It’s being smartly aggressive at 10 — going with young shows on four weeknights, with Monday newbie “The Blacklist” and Tuesday soph “Chicago Fire” getting The Voice as a lead-in.

“Revolution” has to succeed on its own Wednesday at 8, where it will be the only Big Four drama in the hour.

Skedding three rookie comedies on Thursday is risky, but NBC sees an opening for family laffers. And with Sean Hayes and Michael J. Fox, it will bring familiar faces to the night. It’s a surprise that “Sean Saves the World” is at 9 and “The Michael J. Fox Show” at 9:30 rather than the other way around, but NBC ensured that Fox wouldn’t face CBS’ “Big Bang Theory.”

And “Parenthood” capping the night is smart, as the vet will certainly improve the tough hour for NBC.

“Dracula” after “Grimm” gives NBC a compatible Friday drama block, which could lead to more same-night viewing.

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