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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

TV Execs Wager on Fall Slots

In the battle over ratings, network schedulers use research, espionage and instinct. Their handiwork will be unveiled starting today.

May 12, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Fox Broadcasting's Preston Beckman looked at the network's limping lineup last fall and decided that he, like tuned-out viewers everywhere, had seen enough.

With seemingly nothing to lose, Fox's top program scheduler decided to start from scratch, rebuilding the network's Monday night slate around a then-unknown "reality" show. Using Fox's football coverage to endlessly hype the program, Beckman launched a surprise attack on his competitors, who were still months away from debuting their unscripted shows.

The move worked brilliantly. The new show, "Joe Millionaire," tapped a rich vein among viewers and advertisers. More than 42 million people watched the show's finale. The network charged as much as $500,000 for a 30-second ad spot. And for the first time in Fox's modest 16-year history, it seized a first-place finish in the February sweeps among viewers 18 to 49, the demographic group most prized by advertisers.

Sometimes, Beckman said, "the best scheduling moves are the ones you make out of desperation."

Although largely unknown outside TV's insular executive ranks, Beckman and his cagey counterparts at the other five broadcast networks are on the industry's front edge, making multimillion-dollar decisions that can make or break a show, a star, or even a boss.

Beginning today, their handiwork will be under the microscope but not by the usual living-room crowd. Instead, legions of sharply dressed ad buyers will descend on midtown Manhattan for the unveiling of the networks' fall season offerings. The buyers are expected to spend a record $8.5 billion on prime-time commercials.

Half art, half science, the scheduler's job requires someone who can blend research, espionage and gut instincts. Always pressure-packed, the job is tougher than ever because of the wildly shifting economic realities of network television.

The bruising competition now includes scores of niche cable channels that never rest, multiplying the headaches for programmers who must be hyper-alert to threats from new rivals. At the same time, summer is no vacation for schedulers anymore. Reruns have given way to unscripted shows, each a possible blockbuster in waiting.

On top of all this, networks can't survive in prime time by playing to different audiences as they once did, selecting shows that appeal to various age groups. Today, if a program draws mostly viewers in their 50s or above, advertisers lose interest. As a result, schedulers are slugging it out with fewer programming options as they vie for the same young crowd.

"Scheduling is so much more complicated today than it was a decade ago," said former top NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer. "When we were doing it in the mid-90s we were competing against ABC and CBS and, to a lesser degree, Fox. Now there's this conglomeration of cable channels and HBO. It's become a 12-month-a-year operation."

These days, almost anything goes, including "leaking" bogus schedules to mislead competitors. Each network even has an operative to dig up information about upcoming program moves by rivals.

"We will do anything we can, basically, to win," said NBC's scheduling head, Mitch Metcalf.

*

Like Sharks Circling

Kelly Kahl, CBS' top scheduler, wakes about 6:15 a.m. to the sound of a fax machine next to his bed spitting out overnight ratings from Nielsen Media Research.

"You know right away whether you're going to have a good day or not," he said.

The ratings seem like a jumble of numbers and shares, but Kahl and his counterparts parse it a million different ways. They are like sharks cruising just below the surface, trying to detect blood in the water.

Last fall, ABC's Jeff Bader followed a trace of vulnerability to "West Wing," NBC's critically acclaimed series that had started slipping in the ratings. In his own network's wings was the unscripted "The Bachelor," which Bader pitted against President Bartlet and his fast-talking aides. When the votes were counted, "West Wing" lost.

" 'West Wing' was the hottest thing on the planet," Bader said. "No one thought it would be placing third in its time period this year."

Not every move, of course, leads to victory.

ABC executives, for example, decided earlier this year to clear the Sunday night decks for a remake of "Dragnet." So they switched Sunday stalwart "The Practice" to Monday, where the network was suffering. Then came the real pain. "The Practice" was hammered by "Joe Millionaire" while "Dragnet" has yet to catch hold and may not see another season.

"Shows are very fragile," Bader said. "But if the shows can't support themselves then they can't stay on the air. This is a business."

It wasn't long ago that the Big Three networks -- NBC, CBS and ABC -- were the lords of television and the competition between them was more genteel.

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