The Biz: Nets mimic cable in changes to line-ups

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The major networks are poised to try a kitchen sink full of maneuvers in the quest for viewers, who, TV executives say, have become more discerning, more mobile and more saturated.

They'll try short bursts of original programming with no repeats. They'll launch shows in June and August and April. They'll triple run the same show in a week's time, and they'll program stunts and specials year-round. They'll borrow models from U.K. broadcasters and U.S. cable channels.

The networks collectively and individually struggled through the fall, with Nielsen numbers reflecting lost viewers in nearly every demographic considered important to advertisers. So, executives say, it's time to break out some new tactics for audiences that are watching TV differently and turning to other entertainment more frequently

"We'll be looking at new business models, new creative models," ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne says. "We'll try different ways to schedule and produce, and we'll learn from this experimentation."

ABC, currently solid in comedy but hurting in drama, plans a number of tests in the second half of the season. The net will feature more originals in April and May, including a drama called "The D.A." that will run four straight episodes, almost like a movie miniseries. The period piece "Empire" will run for eight weeks, and "Kingdom Hospital," from horror icon Stephen King, will run 15 hours over 13 episodes, with "big-event-style" hype surrounding both, Lyne says. An original scripted show in the summer is also planned. And a Sonny-and-Cher-style variety special with Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson could become a fixture if audiences take to it.

NBC will begin launching its fall season in August, immediately after the Summer Olympics, trying to capitalize on the heavy traffic the event brings to the network. Fox, which has launched successful series in the summer, has formally declared itself a 12-month-a-year programmer. The WB Network will launch its first original made-for-TV movies, for the "Charmed" set, and UPN will air the first reality series to be built around Amish teenagers.

With viewership down and alternatives proliferating, networks can't afford not to change the way they do business, says Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-director of global research integration, Initiative Media.

stopping erosion

"The biggest impact could come from the move to year-round scheduling," she says. "People have been conditioned not to watch network TV during certain times of the year. ... If that changes, networks should be able to stop some of the erosion to cable."

For years, network TV had free rein to "sell the same stuff and split the customers," says Robert Thompson, founder of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "Now, it's like 10 Wal-Marts came to town."

"One trick a network has always had up its sleeve is the huge series, like `ER,' `Friends,' and `Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,"' Thompson says. "It's still good cultural policy for networks to look for those."

In searching for that kind of monster hit, network execs will throw even more up against the wall.

Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman says her network will have original shows airing all year, noting, "There's no free lunch in this game anymore."

The year-round decision was born of necessity, network execs say, because Major League Baseball games take up a chunk of the fall schedule when new shows traditionally launch. The network also has been successful at summer series like "The OC" and the original "American Idol."

"The truth is, it's harder for shows to get noticed these days, but audiences will find a good show. Good, compelling TV will be discovered," says Preston Beckman, Fox's exec VP-strategic program planning.

No matter the tactics, Thompson says, there's a truism: "It's the content, stupid."

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