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Networks jockey for best time periods with new fall lineup

While shows like CBS' 'Big Bang Theory' shift to another night, new dramas like Fox's 'Lone Star' and ABC's 'No Ordinary Family' try to be breakout successes, and comedy blocks hope to draw bigger audiences.

September 19, 2010|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times

At some point in the future, the broadcast networks will stop losing viewers. The alternative, that they wither away to nothing, seems unlikely, however much some haters of old media may be rooting for that day.

So the question is when this halt will occur. How about with the new season that starts Monday? Doesn't seem so silly when you realize how quickly the media change these days. Just a year ago, after all, Jay Leno was headed to prime time, Ellen DeGeneres was bound for the "American Idol" judges' panel and Steve McPherson was ensconced as ABC's top programmer. The new season won't find any of them in those former roles.

In fact, there are signs that the broadcast erosion may have already slowed if not stopped altogether — thanks in part to ABC's Emmy-winning sitcom "Modern Family" and Fox's musical comedy "Glee," unlikely hits that were mere blips on the cultural radar a year ago. CBS, Fox and NBC each logged slightly more total viewers during the 2009-10 season than the previous one, according to Nielsen Co. data that count live plus DVR viewing up to a week after a program initially airs. (Despite the growing popularity of DVRs, 94% of all viewing during Prime-time was done so live last season, according to Nielsen for the 2009-10 season)

However, every network was still down significantly — from 4% (Fox) to 13% (ABC) — compared with the 2006-07 season, the last complete cycle before a writers strike severely disrupted the industry.

So far, critics have been tepid about the new season's offerings and CW's cheerleader drama, "Hellcats," and action remake "Nikita" opened to solid but hardly blockbuster numbers. But there are some bold scheduling moves, most notably from CBS, which is shifting its hit sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" from Mondays to lead off Thursdays. In mid-season, a new lineup of judges will help determine whether Fox's "Idol" remains TV's No. 1 show. And NBC, which had spent the last few seasons on a cost-cutting jag, is attempting to shake off the Leno blues by leaping back into scripted programming, with new shows making up more than one-third of its fall lineup.

CBS, the most-watched U.S. network, has done an excellent job hanging onto its core audience and over the last season was flat in viewers (an average of 11.9 million) and the ad-friendly demographic of viewers ages 18 to 49. Now it's making an aggressive play with "Big Bang" on Thursdays, a key night for advertisers trying to reach viewers planning their weekends.

Programming chief Nina Tassler said the network is trying to be realistic about the prospects for "Big Bang" on the new night, where it will be paired with a new comedy, "$#*! My Dad Says" starring William Shatner. CBS has not had a comedy block in that Thursday slot in more than 40 years.

"We don't expect it to do nearly the numbers it did on Monday," she said of "Big Bang" in an interview. But "that show is a very strong brand … overall we're gonna do better in the time period." Indeed, rivals say that CBS smells weakness in NBC's Thursday comedy block kicked off by "Community" and Emmy favorite " 30 Rock."

Another big CBS move: The remake of "Hawaii Five-O," occupying the 10 p.m. Monday slot recently held by " CSI: Miami," which has been shipped to Sundays.

Fox, which has won the past few seasons in young adults thanks to "Idol," has a spring in its step from the sleeper success of "Glee," and now hopes to leverage the show as a lead-in for a new comedy block on Tuesdays. "Raising Hope" is the latest from writer-producer Greg Garcia ("My Name Is Earl") and "Running Wilde" is from "Arrested Development" overseer Mitch Hurwitz.

"Comedy was one of our big goals," said Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly, who admitted that the network's recent half-hour efforts have resulted in a "mixed bag," with titles such as "'Til Death" and "Do Not Disturb" failing to make much headway.

With the new series, "I feel like we've got a real bona fide shot there to pop a comedy," Reilly added. Observing the success of "Modern Family" this past season (made by Fox's sister studio), "you really started to feel as though people were starting to check out comedy again."

On Mondays, Fox will gamble on "Lone Star," an edgy drama about a young Texas con man (James Wolk) living a double life. "It's a tricky show because of its provocative premise," Reilly said. "I feel like this is an opportunity to pull some cable viewers back that like shows like 'Weeds' and ' Breaking Bad,' shows that have a little bit of danger. And yet it is ultimately, at its core, a relationship soap."

Of course, much of Fox's success will ultimately depend on what happens with "Idol" at mid-season. Rivals say the show's ratings will likely continue to drift down but that it can't be discounted.

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