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If It's September, This Must Be Premiere Time

Television* Although cable has altered the competitive climate, executives are loath to tinker with the only rollout routine they trust.

September 02, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Today is Labor Day, which means, as always, that the leading broadcasters are a few weeks away from unleashing a major programming blitz, ringing the dinner bell and hoping viewers dutifully return.

Never mind that network executives have pontificated for years about the need to retain viewers during the summer, the value of viewing the TV season as a 52-week proposition, and how they can no longer afford to hang out a "Gone fishin' " sign from Memorial Day through Labor Day, letting cable channels lure away viewers. Forget, also, those frequent cries of frustration from producers concerned that their shows will get lost amid the avalanche of new shows all debuting at the same time.

Programmers responded to the what-to-do-during-the-summer conundrum this year by offering a slightly larger assortment of unscripted shows, with "American Idol" and "Dog Eat Dog" emerging as hits, just as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," "Survivor" and "Fear Factor" did in summers past.

That was summer, however, and this is now. All told, 30 prime-time series will make their debut on the broadcast networks before September is over, with 18 of them arriving the week of Sept. 23--a period that marks the official start of the television season. More than twice that many existing shows will also come back that week with new episodes.

Whether this approach--born in the 1950s, when the schedule coincided with the major auto makers' introduction of their fall lines--still makes sense today is open to debate, but for a variety of reasons the template is difficult to alter, the habit hard to break.

"Television has very strong patterns that have been there for decades, and they're still locked into them," said Herb Schlosser, a former president of NBC Entertainment and consultant to Salomon Smith Barney in New York.

"If the networks were smart, you wouldn't have 18 shows premiering in one week, because there's too much clutter," added Chuck Bachrach, executive vice president for media and programming at the Los Angeles-based ad agency Rubin Postaer and Associates.

Yet while the crush of shows might sound like madness, executives insist there is method to it.

For starters, viewing levels do rise substantially in the fall, as the weather cools, daylight saving time ends and kids go back to school. Based on Nielsen Media Research data, the percentage of homes using television (what television executives refer to as HUT levels) increases by more than 10% from summer to fall.

That trend holds among teenagers and young adults, key demographics that are generally more elusive and particularly attractive to advertisers. "They're just not as available in the summer," said WB Entertainment President Jordan Levin.

Moreover, despite the competitive logjam, network officials say the idea of a "premiere week" creates a sense of excitement among viewers, collectively promoting network television.

"It's the swallows coming back to Capistrano," said Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning. "The viewing public is still conditioned to believe the networks are bringing out their shows the last few weeks in September."

Networks have experimented with spacing their premieres, but in most instances, the strategy hasn't paid off. In addition, programmers fear that holding a show back might allow rivals to establish a toehold they might not gain otherwise--a concern for Fox, which will delay several series because of prime-time preemptions due to its coverage of the major league baseball playoffs.

"There's a risk of someone getting attached to a competing show before you get started," said David Poltrack, CBS' executive vice president of research.

"In most cases, when people have tried [starting early], it hasn't really worked.... Premiere week really signals the beginning of the fall schedule to the viewer and creates an event out of the beginning of the season."

Other considerations play a part. The major networks need to repeat their most popular shows for economic reasons because they pay for two broadcasts of each episode and usually don't turn a profit until the second airing.

The networks must also plan how they deploy fresh episodes around "sweeps" periods--monthlong rating surveys conducted in November, February and May that are vital to local TV stations, which rely upon those results to negotiate advertising rates. Because most shows produce 22 to 26 episodes a year, and the season officially runs 36 weeks, allocating a dozen episodes to those three months leaves only 10 to 14 to be strewn across the balance.

Beyond that, there's an emphasis on firmly planting programs before November, when the sweeps competition becomes fierce as high-profile specials and movies get thrown into the mix.

"You become a slave to the sweeps, and the momentum you need to get the November sweeps set up," Levin noted.

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