Actor Woes Force TV Networks to Shuffle Programming

With Upfront Talks Still Ongoing, Shaky Fall Lineups Don't Help

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- TV's fall season is weeks away from air, but it will already look different than network executives said it would in May.

Maura Tierney and Mischa Barton are dealing with medical issues.
Maura Tierney and Mischa Barton are dealing with medical issues. Credit: NBC/CW
NBC confirmed earlier this month that it would delay the start of production of "Parenthood," a much-anticipated comedy based on the 1989 Ron Howard-directed film. At issue is a medical problem actress Maura Tierney must deal with, which will delay production of the program. In its place, NBC will debut "Mercy," a medical drama, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. starting Sept. 23.

Meanwhile, the CW is preparing some readjustments to its modeling drama "The Beautiful Life" after reports surfaced that actress Mischa Barton recently had to be hospitalized. A CW spokesman said the show will debut as scheduled on Sept. 16, and declined to comment on whether the program will contain any changes from what advertisers have previewed.

The only thing really true about the TV business is that nothing is certain about a program until it shows up on air. Even though networks put on lavish presentations each May to announce their fall offerings, the fact is that none of the programs is really set in stone; casts, story lines and time slots are all up for grabs as TV networks grapple with competition, focus groups and fan reaction. But such maneuvering by the networks while they are in the midst of upfront negotiations with advertisers doesn't augur well for the programs in question. When a network rejiggers a new program, it's usually seen as a negative.

Advertisers don't seem to mind the switching so long as the program they liked is replaced with "a comparable-quality show," said Shari Anne Brill, senior VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat. "Even though there are a lot of unscripted shows out there, advertisers as a rule want to be in quality, scripted entertainment. If a quality, scripted show is replaced by a quality, scripted show that for whatever reason can't go on the air as scheduled, that will be fine. I don't think an advertiser would be as happy if they ended up in 'American Gladiator' vs. 'Parenthood,'" she said.

Greater concerns may lie ahead should this year's upfront, in which the networks typically sell 70% to 80% of their ad inventory for the coming season, continue in low gear.

There's a small consensus that other programs could come under pressure. Should a severe delay take place, "budgets would come under scrutiny, and there would be some pressure on new productions," said Ed Atorino a media analyst with Benchmark Co. There could be what he called a "stretch out" in the number of new shows produced.

TV outlets, of course, have come to rely on this venerable model of selling a majority of their ad inventory in an upfront market, then using those ad-revenue guarantees as a way to determine what funds will be available early next year to fund programming. So far this summer, the upfront is proceeding at a glacial pace, with many analysts and buyers anticipating networks will hold a greater-than-usual amount of ad time to sell as scatter, or ad time purchased much closer to air date. Wouldn't this bogged-down process make it more difficult for networks to determine what monies will be available to develop new programs, attract buzzy actors and send different shows on location?

Should they grow really concerned, the networks could, of course, "simply lower pricing demands to get money flowing and avoid the issue," said Mr Atorino, essentially hoping that a better market for scatter will bring the money in.

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