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ABC reverses its field on Mondays

Are you ready for some football? That's so ESPN; romance is the name of the game now.

January 09, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York — MONDAY nights aren't just for the boys anymore on ABC.

With the conclusion of the 36th and final season of "Monday Night Football" last month, the network is launching a new lineup of prime-time shows on Monday with a decidedly different theme: relationships.

Starting tonight, viewers will be able to get their fill of love-and-romance-themed programming when the ongoing series "Wife Swap" is followed by the premieres of three shows: "Emily's Reasons Why Not," a new comedy starring Heather Graham as a self-help publisher with a bad track record in relationships; "Jake in Progress," the second incarnation of the John Stamos romantic comedy; and the eighth edition of "The Bachelor," this one set in Paris.

The strategy marks a new approach for Monday night on ABC, which drew heavily male audiences during football season. Over the last five years, the number of male viewers of "Monday Night Football" outstripped women 2 to 1.

But as all the networks jostle to attract the same pool of young viewers, ABC decided to shift its focus once football left its airwaves for a new home on ESPN.

"It's about female appeal," said Jeffrey D. Bader, executive vice president of programming, planning and scheduling for ABC Entertainment. "We're all in the same 18-to-49-year-old game, so you have to counter-program within the demographic. And none of the other networks are really appealing to women" on Monday nights.

Executives now believe they have an opening to build a night of themed programming that will attract a young, largely female audience -- one that they can then maintain in the long run without interruption.

"If we have success on Monday night now, it's not something that is going to be derailed with football starting in the fall," Bader said.

ABC is heavily promoting the new Monday lineup on Sunday nights, when large numbers of women tune in to watch "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." And the network is already heartened by the performance of "Wife Swap," which, as the 8 p.m. lead-in to "Monday Night Football," ranked No. 1 in the time period among 18-to-34-year-old female viewers so far this season, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The shows' producers welcome the packaging.

"It's a great idea, the idea of a unified block of television you can watch from start to finish," said Jeff Greenstein, executive producer of "Jake in Progress." "I don't think a network has had one since Thursday night fell apart for NBC."

Emily Kapnek, writer and executive producer of "Emily's Reasons Why Not," said she hopes the lineup will also appeal to some of the 10-million-plus men who tuned in to watch "Monday Night Football" this season.

"We're trying to make the stories relatable to anybody who's been in a relationship," she said. "There's something there for anyone -- who's not interested in love?"

The new series -- a single-camera sitcom with no laugh track -- stars Graham as Emily Sanders, a successful publisher of self-help books in Los Angeles who is nevertheless plagued by bad judgment when it comes to her personal relationships. To keep herself in check, she devises a list of "Reasons Why Not" to do something.

Stamos' character on "Jake in Progress" has similar issues: Jake Phillips is a sought-after New York publicist who still can't seem to find the right woman. The show received critical praise last year but struggled to find an audience, a problem Bader blamed largely on the fact that the network didn't have the right slot for the show. Without another romantic comedy to pair it with, ABC ended up running multiple episodes back to back.

But this season, Stamos and the program's producers also sought to rethink the tone and the character.

"ABC was pretty cool to bring us back, so I wanted to try to come through for them and fix issues that we had," Stamos said. "We all kind of got together and said, 'How do we make the show more approachable and more likable and more grounded?' "

One of the key problems, producers found, was that viewers had trouble relating to Jake, a handsome man-about-town who had no problem getting dates.

"We found last year that no matter how many times Jake wanted love instead of sex, there was still a feeling that the character was a little snarky, a little unlikable," said Austin Winsberg, creator and executive producer. "I never wanted to make Jake the slick player guy that people hate."

This season, the writers developed a running story line to keep viewers engaged and show Jake's softer side: his efforts to get over his former fiancee, Annie (played by Charlotte Ross), whom he is forced to work with.

"That's the backbone of any great romantic comedy: a guy and a girl," Stamos said. "And we're kind of playing some of that old movie-star, Hepburn-Tracy dialogue, fast banter, which I like doing the best. Everything else kind of falls into place around that. I think he has to be in love or be with one girl, for me, anyway, otherwise it just feels unsatisfying."

Of course, if things don't work out with Annie, Jake could always test the waters with Emily, perhaps in a romantic-comedy crossover show?

"If they want to do it, we'd love it!" Greenstein said.

"They can start a long-distance relationship," Winsberg mused.

"He's a publicist, she's in publishing," Greenstein said. "What could be better?"

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