What You Should Watch While Watching This Fall

New TV Season Kicks Off With More at Stake for Networks and Marketers Than Ever Before

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Keep your hand on the remote, but your eye on the bottom line.

With September comes the fall TV season, that widely anticipated time of year when big-media concerns stuff us full of new shows and new episodes of old favorites, then hope against hope that we'll commit to watch more of their stuff and less of what the other guys are putting on the screen.

The CW launches its 2011-2012 season Sept. 13, with "Ringer," a kooky lady-twins-gone-wild drama starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. NBC sparks the latest hope for a turnaround with its first broadcast of "Sunday Night Football" on Sept. 11. CBS launches a new season of "Survivor" on Sept. 14. ABC kicks things off Sept. 19 with "Dancing with the Stars" and "Castle." Fox will debut "New Girl" Sept 20.

Don't let the glitzy names and show concepts distract you from the business at hand. With more at stake these days than ever before -- a dizzying array of ratings -draining new technologies make every new addition to the prime-time grid a crucial one -- the networks have to worry more about ad dollars, cash flow, audience patterns and show running than they ever did. Ad Age guides you through the hottest-button issues of the new season. Don't change channels now, or you'll never catch up.

'Two and a Half Men'
'Two and a Half Men'

Is CBS's "Two and a Half Men' a viable entertainment property or being managed for cash flow?
With the much-publicized departure of Charlie Sheen from this hot CBS sitcom, one might think the hoopla had all but leaked out of the program. That hasn't stopped CBS and Warner Bros. from making a ballsy attempt to keep "Men" upright by adding Ashton Kutcher to the cast. According to CBS, "high demand with premium pricing has been part of the "Two and A Half Men' premiere since the upfront," said Jo Ann Ross, president-network sales.

The show is entering its ninth season. Whether keeping it on the air represents a quick attempt to secure some cash from a production that had to cut short its episodes last season or a gutsy maneuver to start a new ratings juggernaut will all hinge on viewers' reaction in these next few weeks.

Conan O' Brien
Conan O' Brien

Is Conan O' Brien still a worthy late-night contender?
The lanky red-haired comedian isn't proving "Very Funny" for advertisers, despite the promotional slogan for his cable home, TBS.

Time Warner 's Turner, which put Mr. O' Brien's "Conan" late-night program on TBS late last fall after his acrimonious departure from NBC, has seen his general ratings dwindle after the cable unit pushed marketers to agree to prices close to what they were paying for NBC's "Tonight" and CBS's "Late Show." Make-goods, the ad inventory TV networks have to fork over to sponsors when their programs fail to make ratings guarantees, are in the works if they haven't already been distributed, according to two ad-buying executives.

True, Mr. O' Brien brings in the younger viewers advertisers say they crave, but he needs to do it in a more competitive fashion if his expensive program is to compete more seriously with not just Leno and Letterman, but also Stewart, Colbert and Handler.

Steve Buscemi of 'Boardwalk Empire'
Steve Buscemi of 'Boardwalk Empire'

Could cable disrupt the broadcasters' fall?
Summer, so full of repeats and burn-offs and low-budget reality on broadcast TV, has become a time for cable outlets to run attractive fare (think "The Closer" on TNT or the last run of "Rescue Me" on FX) and siphon off some of broadcast's audience.

But the fall is proving an attractive time as well, as anyone looking forward to watching "Boardwalk Empire" on HBO, "Homeland" on Showtime, a revival of "Beavis and Butt-Head" on MTV , "American Horror Story" on FX or "The Walking Dead" on AMC can tell you.

Maria Bello stars in 'Prime Suspect'
Maria Bello stars in 'Prime Suspect'

Will NBC spark a turnaround, or is it just too late?
Another fall, another NBC schedule cobbled together by some poor entertainment executive thrown into the melee. Except this time, new NBC Entertainment head Robert Greenblatt appears to have the luxury of building this beleaguered network -- still reeling from poor development over the past several years -- back up over several seasons.

NBC's schedule seems to have more bright spots than usual: Ad buyers think "Prime Suspect" on Thursday nights could return high quality to a timeslot NBC once dominated, though they confide the show's grit and dark nature (in the pilot, the heroine gets clocked -- hard! -- in the face several times by a perp) could be hard for viewers to take. And the network hopes to use the Super Bowl to goose interest in the second season of "The Voice" as well as upscale musical drama "Smash."

Of course Mr. Greenblatt will have to manage a changing cast at the venerable "SVU" and the delayed entrance of "30 Rock." And if shows fail to gain traction this season, there's a sense NBC broadcast will simply fall further behind as viewers continue to sample from a broadening menu of video entertainment.

'The Playboy Club'
'The Playboy Club'

Are viewers eager for more "retro TV"?
With the expected launches of NBC's "The Playboy Club" and ABC's "Pan Am," one might think the networks have done painstaking research showing Americans long for tales of days gone by . More likely? The networks are either going with their gut or are envious of the attention constantly accorded period drama "Mad Men" on AMC, despite its relatively tiny live audiences.

Some people in Hollywood still want critical acclaim and Emmys. We've seen "retro" dramas before, from NBC's "American Dreams" to ABC's "China Beach" to CBS's "Swingtown." While they typically do get bouquets from critics, their time on the air is often short-lived.

'X Factor'
'X Factor'

Will Fox win with two big bets?
If the News Corp. broadcast network plays its cards right, it could own both halves of the TV season. The fall will see the debut of "The X Factor," a program that seems like such a sure thing the producers could probably throw babies off of buildings and still walk away unscratched. With new wind seen behind "American Idol" in the spring, a successful "X Factor" launch could help the network cement its already strong hold on viewers between 18 and 49 -- the demographic advertisers covet.

Less certain is the future of "Terra Nova," a much-ballyhooed (and very expensive) dinosaur-and-time-travel drama that is said to look amazing, although Fox executives are only running it in the first half of the season -- leaving room, one supposes, to call the show a mini-series with a finite run if things don't pan out.

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