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Setting Schedules: Risky Business

Television: As the networks begin to map out their fall lineups, they know that adding new shows or moving others has its dangers.

May 09, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As NBC executives sat down to screen more than two dozen new programs vying for slots on its prime-time schedule, they started by watching the pilot for a show that's already on the air--the 1989 prototype for "Seinfeld."

By doing so, NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer wanted to remind his staff of the difference between a pilot and a successful series--a crucial distinction as networks begin the high-stakes chess game of revising their lineups for the fall, with the future of programs (and often careers) hanging in the balance.

The screening of new series candidates occurs over the next 10 days, in advance of annual programming presentations to advertisers, setting off negotiations to sell billions of dollars in commercial time.

Top-rated NBC--which last year amassed a record $2.15 billion in what's known as "upfront" sales, far more than its nearest competitor--will again set the tone, officially unveiling its first "Seinfeld"-less roster since 1991 on May 18. ABC, WB, CBS, UPN and Fox will follow in rapid succession that week.

How NBC fills the void left by "Seinfeld" will be closely monitored by the other networks and will likely influence how they configure their schedules. Should "Frasier" move from Tuesdays to Thursdays to replace "Seinfeld," for example, ABC might try to exploit any perceived weakness by moving one of its popular Wednesday shows--"Spin City," "Dharma & Greg" or even "The Drew Carey Show"--to Tuesdays.

"NBC's schedule will be dictated in large part by what they do Thursday, which will dictate what Fox and ABC do in reaction," said one veteran TV executive.

Fortunately for NBC, both ABC and CBS have enough deficiencies elsewhere that neither is in a position to make an aggressive push into new territory, as they instead focus on addressing their own problem areas.

Fox, on the other hand, could mount a challenge to NBC on Thursdays by relocating the animated Sunday night hit "King of the Hill" there--a strategy that might become more attractive to Fox if "Friends" shifts from 8 p.m. into the 9 p.m. "Seinfeld" slot, leaving a less-proven show to open the night.

All the networks have serious needs in different areas, but each must balance them against the risk associated with making lineup changes when viewers now have dozens of options that extend well beyond just the major networks.

The price networks have paid with past scheduling misfires would seem to dictate proceeding cautiously in making changes.

Just two years ago, for example, CBS consistently won the Monday ratings race with a lineup anchored by three Top 20 shows: "Murphy Brown," "The Nanny" and "Chicago Hope."

This season, the first series is limping toward its end while the last two are pulling in lower ratings running Wednesday nights. Moreover, the network now frequently finishes fourth from 9 to 10 p.m. Mondays, and has watched 40% of its audience disappear at 10 p.m. by pinning its hopes on the new drama "Brooklyn South."

Similar tales of woe could be written about ABC on Tuesday and, to a lesser degree, Fox's Thursday lineup after the network canceled "Martin" and benched "Living Single" and "New York Undercover."

NBC also has seen the bottom drop out on its ratings in spots by shuffling programs around. The network even finished behind the WB and UPN networks one Wednesday night this season with the misnamed new comedy "Built to Last," which NBC yanked after just three telecasts.

Making such changes, network executives often face an unappetizing choice: stick with what they have and keep enduring record-low ratings, or try to improve their lot and risk watching bad quickly become worse.

NBC officials say they won't make final decisions on their lineup--including the "Seinfeld" replacement--until executives have viewed all the new series in development.

ABC, meanwhile, won't set its schedule until it's clear what NBC is doing. That means the network will likely have to notify producers of new programs that their show has made the cut without initially telling them the night or time slot in which the show will air. Networks usually need two days' notice to arrange getting their stars to New York to help schmooze advertisers.

Though some executives think there is value in announcing last to evaluate the competition (the order is rather arbitrarily dictated by when the networks book space for their presentations), NBC's Ohlmeyer disagreed.

"You can sit there and counter-program till the cows come home. The fact of the matter is, we want to put on the best schedule we can put on," he said. "The other reality is, if we see something we really don't like, we have until September to change it."

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