A time for NBC to air the Olympics, and Fox the World Series. A time for "The O.C." and its siblings in midsummer and an entire new season of programming to start on the heels of the Summer Games' closing ceremonies in Athens.
And after that, there may be a brief time in the spotlight for everyone, as four networks, led by News Corp.'s Fox and General Electric Co.'s NBC, look prepared to pare back their offerings in the fall and roll out new programming 52 weeks a year.
Which isn't to say the fall season, with its splash of premieres, is dead as we know it. And the upfront selling period, even if you're on the side of those advertisers that wish it would go away, is likely to stick around a bit longer. But the trend of staggering debuts is expected to have a far-reaching impact on the scheduling and promotion of new shows.
On one hand, the networks are trying to prevent the slow but continuous flow of viewers and ad dollars to cable (from which the tactic of staggered starts is borrowed), while placating advertisers tired of watching new shows crash and burn in the fall.
"This is something advertisers want, and it helps their own business models as well," says Andy Donchin, senior VP-director of national broadcast for Aegis Group's Carat North America, New York.
Fox impressed media buyers during the March development meetings, presenting seven pilots for programs that will kick off during the summer doldrums; last summer's surprise hit "The O.C." debuted in August and began building buzz in the 18-34 demo well before the fall season.
NBC will begin its fall season three weeks early, immediately after the Olympics end Aug. 29, to capitalize on promotional spots studded throughout the Games broadcast. Executives from Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and Time Warner's WB vowed during the development meetings that they were also on board, the former with reality series and the latter with a new sitcom set to bow in July.
FOX AHEAD OF PACK
But Fox is far out in front in terms of how the production and ordering of new shows will have to change when the networks begin programming for the summer en masse.
"The significant event was last year, when we picked up `The O.C.' on April 7 in order to get it on the air early," says Craig Erwich, exec VP-programming at Fox Broadcasting Co. "This year, we ordered `The North Shore' and `Method & Red' in early March, thinking we'd have the option of airing it earlier."
Doing so has forced a change in the way Fox sets its schedule. "In years past, you look at a full pilot in May and you screen it," Mr. Erwich says. "Now we get an almost mini, customized presentation, sometimes while it's still in development. We're ordering scripts behind our pilots, and we're taking pitches year-round. It really has changed the rhythm here."
WB Co-CEO Jordan Levin, whose network traditionally has a lull in the spring when many of its series are airing repeats, sees launching new shows in March and April gradually becoming the norm. He points to the film industry as a template for the scheduling and promotion of new programming-the calendar would be divvied up in advance as the networks pick their spots and rev up the marketing machine.
"There are windows of opportunity throughout the year," Mr. Levin says, "and the broadcast networks will take advantage of every window and increasingly push behind a single product."
But that model has its own disadvantages since programming executives are loath to lock themselves into scheduling commitments a year or more in advance, as the film industry does.
"I don't think that by us saying it's a 52-week schedule we're going to set it in stone," says Jon Nesvig, president-sales at Fox Television Group.
The shift to a 52-week format will have an immediate impact on the perceived shelf life of programming, which is already undergoing a rethinking in the age of disposable reality shows. If the summer months quickly become a miniseason in their own right, when will the repeats of last season's lineup air?
The economics of the business demand that an episode air twice to pay for itself. Mr. Levin suggests "you may see a trend toward multiplaying a show in a way that resembles HBO's exhibition window or a reality show episode where it plays twice a week and that's it. It becomes a perishable good."
Media buyers are skeptical. "I back them," Mr. Donchin says of the WB. "I know they're trying to be different, but how many half-hours on your schedule in the fall are going to be encores?"
The agency side likes the freshness reality programming brings to the table in the summer, not to mention the lower production costs in line with the smaller audiences. "It makes a lot of sense to do that rather than rush a scripted series on," says Steve Sternberg, exec VP-director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global USA, New York. "The summer is not going to be just repeats anymore."
"I think it's part of the new formula," says Geoff Robison, senior VP-national television at Palisades Media Group, Santa Monica, Calif. "You can do it relatively cheaply, it's not that big a tragedy if it fails, you can milk it for all it's worth, and you may have another `Apprentice.' "
To listen to both sides complain about the fall season's shortcomings, it's a mystery why the format even exists at all.
"Hopefully, we will avoid using our weapons of mass destruction on each other the way we do when we premiere everything against everybody else and not get samples," says Fox's Mr. Nesvig.
Those sentiments aside, all parties agree that the fall season won't disappear inside a 52-week world. Mr. Erwich stresses that he isn't abandoning the fall season at Fox; he's just shifting it. "Our season merely happens to start in the summer," he says.
"It's a two-pronged assault," says Carat's Mr. Donchin. "Don't abandon the fall season, but also have enough product, meaning an oversupply, to debut throughout the year especially in the summer."
Besides giving breathing room to new shows, the trend toward staggered debuts is widely seen as a hedge against the erosion of both the broadcast networks' audience and ad dollars vs. cable.
The networks may have landed $9.5 billion in commitments at last year's upfront salesfest, but there are growing indications that advertisers will shift anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion to cable. Fighting back in the summer, where cable channels pioneered debuts as a counterprogramming tactic, "is a way to try and limit audience erosion," says Mr. Sternberg.
"Let's not tell viewers we are off the air," Mr. Nesvig says. "Let's not let cable steal our viewers."
While network programming executives might be somewhat successful fighting a rearguard action against cable for viewers, media buyers reject the idea that summer or even spring debuts will have an impact at this year's upfront. Price and reach are still the overwhelming factors when choosing between the networks and cable, regardless of their tactics.
"Clients are buying broadcast for the ease and reach of purchasing broadcast. A lot of the shows are almost secondary," says Bill Abbott, exec VP-national ad sales at Crown Media Holdings' Hallmark Channel.
"There is no question that this is where the viewers are going en masse, but just how much money moves to cable depends on the price," adds Mr. Donchin.
As for the continued existence of the upfront itself, even its critics believe that current flaws make it well-suited to adapt, at least in the short term, to the new challenges that emerge from a shift to a 52-week season.
In the current setup, "you buy stuff during the upfront, and a lot of it isn't going to be on the air," says Magna Global's Mr. Sternberg. "If you're buying stuff for the whole year, by the second or third quarter a lot of what you've bought is gone. The networks are announcing programming that's going to take the place of what's missing."
NOT GOING ANYWHERE
Mr. Donchin asserts: "The upfront will be with us for a while."
Others hope the shift will finally be the catalyst that breaks the upfront into two or more seasons, if not some other form entirely, throughout the year.
"I personally don't like the upfront," Mr. Robison says. "I think it's ridiculous to lay that much money down at once, and I'm all in favor of doing a quarterly thing, but everyone has to agree."