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Tuned In: The world of TV is in state of flux

Thursday, January 22, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Hollywood -- TV fans, take note: The television universe as we know it is changing. Some would even say it's being sucked into a black hole. Network executives say it's a matter of evolution due to greater competitive pressures caused by multiplying viewing options. Things viewers have taken for granted in the past -- like a relatively stable prime-time schedule -- are being thrown out the window.

And that means viewers will need to adapt.

Just this month I received e-mails from fans of shows that had gone missing. They wanted to know where their shows were. Why no new "Gilmore Girls"? Where's "Everwood"? What happened to "NYPD Blue"? In the case of the first two, it's simply networks conserving new episodes for sweeps months (February, May, November). In the case of "Blue," it was pre-empted for "In the Line of Fire," a move that was reported back in November. "Blue" returns to ABC on Feb. 10.

To keep up, viewers will have to become more media-savvy. That means reading TV notes in the newspaper, surfing the Web for programming updates and understanding that some series will be designed to air for a limited time -- maybe just 4, 6 or 13 episodes -- instead of the standard 22 per season.

Here's what to expect:

1. Constantly shifting schedules

Competition for eyeballs gets hotter as the ratings required for a hit series continue to decline.

"There's no question lower numbers are more acceptable now," said Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman. "I've had some meetings with some past presidents of networks who have had a really fun time telling me about what it was like when they were doing these jobs and what it meant to have a 20 share [of the viewing audience]. A 20 share was just unacceptable -- that's abject failure. And now a 20 share for us is a huge success. The business has changed, no question about it."

To keep up, networks are more concerned with gaining a competitive advantage and less worried about whether they irritate viewers with shifting schedules. In October, NBC scheduled a first-run episode of "The West Wing" and pulled it at the last minute rather than face baseball playoffs that were garnering larger-than-usual ratings. How last-minute? Newspaper TV guides, printed well in advance, did not reflect what NBC aired. Daily newspaper grids and even electronic listings failed to get the information in time.

For tonight, Sunday's TV Week magazine lists "Friends" at 8 p.m. and "Good Morning, Miami" at 8:30 p.m. Late Tuesday, NBC replaced "Miami" with another "Friends" rerun.

Jeff Zucker, president of NBC's entertainment, cable and news divisions, is the biggest proponent of last-minute changes. Earlier this month he juggled the second episode of "The Apprentice," moving it from a Wednesday to a Thursday less than a week before it was scheduled to air. He said doing that is a sign that NBC gives viewers credit for being able to keep up with the changes. But most viewers don't read industry trade publications, let alone TV briefs in daily newspapers, so it's an argument I don't buy.

Clearly, Zucker is not concerned with listings, just on-air promotion. He cited NBC's experience with the first "Average Joe," which was promoted on NBC's airwaves for just two weeks before its ratings-winning premiere.

"It comes on and everybody had found it," Zucker said. "Similarly, we promoted 'The Apprentice' for four weeks, two of those over the holidays, and people found it. We moved 'Third Watch' to Friday night with very little promotion and people found it ... I think a lot of the folks who don't understand some of the moves that we and others are making are playing by the old rules."

Not everyone making decisions about network programming agrees.

"I think it's very difficult for a viewer to know what's going on on television right now," Fox's Berman said. She said Fox's goal is to create a more stable schedule, but that business pressures will continue to necessitate last-minute program changes such as repeating a series' premiere episode later in the same week. "You want the opportunity to expose the show again. You want the opportunity to blunt your competitor. But in the end I think there's a tendency to hurt the consumer."

Another recent tactic: "Off the clock" programming, starting shows a little before or after the hour or half-hour and ending them early or late. "Friends" typically runs a few minutes beyond 8:30 p.m., allowing NBC to cram more commercials into its highest-rated comedy.

Suggestion for viewers: Pay closer attention and get online. It's what we suggest on Page 4 of TV Week. By clicking on "TV Listings" at www.post-gazette.com/tv you'll get updated schedules that reflect changes made after TV Week was published.

2. Programming year-round

It sometimes seems as though viewers still don't understand the old math (22 episodes per season over a 35-week season equals lots of reruns in December, January, March, April and all summer), but a new math is emerging. Now networks are more willing to forsake a second run of a show in the summer and plug in a less expensive reality show.

Fox can't repeat "24" over the summer because it's too serialized. Similarly, NBC did not air reruns of "The West Wing" because its rerun ratings are too low.

"With the choices that exist in the marketplace today, we have to compete for our viewers," Berman said. "The way to compete with them is to provide them with vital programming 52 weeks a year. There is no more free lunch in this game."

Berman said the economic model that forms the basis of the TV business -- fall premiere week, original programming in sweeps months, end of season in May, reruns all summer -- is outdated.

"We've seen other networks, other cable companies, make headway while we have sort of kept our head in the sand," she said. "We no longer have that ability. We need to change the business."

Fox executives began talking about this new direction five years ago, but it's actually happening now. And not only with reality shows. Fox premiered "The O.C." the first week of August, more than a month before the traditional late-Septmber premiere week. The show built slowly, but has emerged as a hit.

Berman said Fox will continue to roll out new series over the summer. It will adhere to the strictures of sweeps months -- February, November and May -- but she said eventually those too "will atrophy and go away."

NBC's Zucker agreed.

"Sweeps, over time, are going to become less and less important," Zucker said.

Already NBC has announced that it will premiere many of its fall shows immediately after the conclusion of the Olympics in early September, three weeks ahead of the traditional fall premiere week.

"Given that we're in year-round programming, we would be silly to wait three weeks after the Olympics, lose that promotional base, and then start the season."

CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves downplays any innovation involved with an early premiere. Years ago, Fox started some of its shows in August, including the first season of "The X-Files."

"It's not reinventing the wheel," Moonves said. "You still have to have the products. If the product is there, it will work whether you launch it in August or you launch it in September. We're doing fine playing by the same old rules."

CBS has added original summer programming in recent years, although it's mostly reality shows. Both "Big Brother" and "The Amazing Race" are expected to return this summer, but Moonves said adding scripted shows doesn't make economic sense because CBS's procedural dramas and sitcoms get decent ratings in reruns.

"The idea of everyone putting on original dramas and comedies during the summer, well, there's a reason only two of the six network made money," Moonves said, "and we're going to stay in that money."

Suggestion for viewers: Learn to accept reruns for what they are: inevitable. Learn to accept pre-emptions for what they are: inevitable. Learn to program the VCR or get a TiVo, which keeps track of when shows are airing for you.

And if you want to save yourself from freaking out when a favorite show disappears for a while, keep up with what's going on in TV by reading the Post-Gazette. Another excellent source is TV Tattle (www.tvtattle.com), a Web site that culls articles from multiple sources.

3. Following the HBO model

HBO runs shorter seasons of most of its shows -- usually 13 episodes -- and other cable networks, like FX, have learned to do the same. HBO also schedules a second and third run of each of its series' episodes later in the same week.

"We haven't scheduled like that, but I would not be surprised if at some point in the future of television you would see that happen," Fox's Berman said. "I don't think it's imminent, but I think you could see it happen."

Shealso cited HBO's short-event programming -- mini-series, limited-runs series -- as a model she's like to replicate. ABC is already doing it. Its midseason drama, "The D.A.," will produce only four episodes. Typically at least six, sometimes nine and often 13 episodes of a new series are initially ordered.

"We've taken a look at why these reality shows are as successful as they are, beyond the concept, and there are some things I think we can take as insights into scripted programming," said ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne. "One of them being that they don't demand you commit the rest of your life to them."

ABC's "Kingdom Hospital" will air over 13 weeks and tell a story that will have at least some degree of closure in its 13th week. Jordan Levin, co-chief executive officer of The WB, agreed that viewers are likely to see more scripted series with uninterrupted limited runs in the future.

But Jamie Kellner, chairman and CEO of The WB, offered this note of caution pertaining specifically to short-run reality shows: They may demand less of viewers, but they also train viewers to watch less television.

"Reality television is a little bit like dating," Kellner said. "You can get in, watch and get out and just flip around. Really getting involved in series television is more like marriage, it's a longer-term relationship over many years. If you train the audience to be more fickle, to look for short-term hits versus trying to lure them into long-term relationships with shows, eventually you'll start paying a price for that."

Suggestion for viewers: Curb your expectations but not your enthusiasm. Seeing 8 or 13 weeks of new episodes of a show -- say, USA's "Monk" -- is better than seeing no new episodes at all or seeing four new ones and then four repeats. It's better to watch a full season over 8 or 13 uninterrupted weeks to preserve a show's continuity than to have it spread out over six months.

4. Canceled no longer means dead

Berman cites her experience with "Family Guy" as an example of how a business model can change. The series was canceled two years ago, but reruns on Cartoon Network have garnered ratings that are considered excellent by cable standards. And DVD sales have been impressive, too.

"Formerly, you'd have a show on network, it would perform or not perform, the network would cancel it; that would pretty much be the end of it," Berman said. The more recent success of "Family Guy" has made the Fox network look at the show again.

The series is produced by Fox's sister-studio, and Berman said new episodes will likely be made. Whether they go to Fox or Cartoon Network remains to be decided.

"It's an interesting situation we find ourselves in," Berman said. "We haven't made any commitments yet, but we're certainly thinking about it."

Suggestion for viewers: Never give up! Not every show will end up on DVD, but with the success of TV shows on this expanding format, even short-lived cult series can get a second chance. Fox's "Firefly" was released on DVD late last year and NBC's much-loved "Freaks & Geeks" is in the works for later in 2004.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.

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