Networks' new schedules are no laughing matter

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Get set for another season of disasters, kidnappings, homicides, fugitives on the lam, conspiracies, and conversations with the dead.

The broadcast networks are loading up again on mostly intense, heavily serialized franchise dramas. Laughs are few and far between compared with the prime-time lineups of 10 or 20 years ago. The plethora of white-knuckle thrillers, hard-boiled procedurals, graphic medical melodramas, and roller-coaster relationship dramas are a perfect metaphor for what's going on behind the scenes in network television.

The schedules the major broadcast networks unveiled this week reflect a higher than usual volume of programming changes and strategy shifts at NBC, ABC and, to a lesser degree, Fox and CBS. Much has been made during the season that wraps next week about the digital media revolution and its impact on old-fashioned broadcasting, but the truth is that network TV remains very much in the same snap-judgment dilemma as the movie business. In the court of pop-culture opinion, it's all about how you open and how many come back to the premiere telecasts in subsequent weeks, no matter how many new options viewers have for watching shows whenever and wherever they please.

Moreover, as the overall network playing field slims by one following the cold fusion of WB Network and UPN into the CW, the pressure is on entertainment president Dawn Ostroff and company to prove that CW will be stronger overall for having cherry-picked the prime assets of its predecessors. CW should have good ammo in having well-established 8 p.m. anchors in place Monday-Thursday.

Based on the fall prime-time lineups announced this week, which are surely subject to change before the September kickoff, big-time shuffles are in store for more than one network on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. And there are a number of all-or-nothing bets being taken with shows and scheduling maneuvers that seem like they'll either be big hits or big misses, ratings-wise, with no middle ground for face-saving.

Exhibit A is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, NBC's hot Thursday 9 p.m. ensemble project starring Matthew Perry. The network was ready to counterprogram CBS's formidable CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with the inside showbiz-y Studio 60, but NBC brass may be eyeing a new location now that ABC has confirmed that its Sunday dynamo Grey's Anatomy is bound for the same time slot.

And after surrendering Saturday to repeats and low-visibility newsmagazines, networks other than CBS thankfully seem to be making an effort to keep Friday from slipping into Nielsen hash-mark territory with a few interesting plays on the night.

Monday seems to be the least rattled night. NBC is asking a lot at 9 p.m. from its well-received new drama Heroes against CBS's comedies, Two and a Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine, but at least it can (probably) count on a welcome from Deal or No Deal as its 8 p.m. lead-in. The absence of ABC's Monday Night Football on the night for the first time in 36 years should give a break on the male-demo side to CBS's comedies and CSI: Miami as well as NBC's Medium.

Tuesday is an extreme makeover for NBC and ABC. ABC is shifting from this season's initial strategy of fielding an hour of comedies, a lighter drama (Commander in Chief) and David E. Kelley-quirky (Boston Legal) on the night in favor of clean-cut reality at 8 p.m. with Dancing With the Stars leading into two new single-camera comedies, Let's Rob... and Help Me Help You, into Boston Legal next season. With Dancing as an engine, ABC's fortunes should improve, though it's surprising that Let's Rob... with Donal Logue landed the neighboring 9 p.m. slot to Dancing instead of the more recognizable Ted Danson in Help Me.

ABC no doubt paid attention to how NBC, even in its handicapped state, was able to launch two single-cam comedies-- My Name Is Earl and The Office--in that hour last season before they marched them over to Thursday in January. Next time out, NBC is going for a suspense thriller at 9 p.m., Kidnapped, sandwiched at 8 p.m. by a feel-good drama about high school football, Friday Night Lights, and the familiar ching-ching of 10 p.m.'s Law & Order: SVU.

CBS is sticking with the high-octane mix that it solidified this season with NCIS and the midseason success of The Unit (proving that America just loves watching Dennis Haysbert get in and out of trouble). CBS went for femmes at 10 p.m. in fall 2005 with the suburban-mom prosecutor drama Close To Home before that show had a successful change of venue to Friday. But with the bad boys of NCIS and The Unit on deck, CBS is going for Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen in the con artists crime-drama Smith. The presence of Fox's House, which only grew stronger in its second season, promises to make Tuesday a challenging night for everyone but Fox even before American Idol touches down again in January.

NBC is all over the map on Wednesday: The Biggest Loser meets two new, disparate comedy series meets the original ching-ching, Law & Order. The 9-10 p.m. entries, the John Lithgow-Jeffrey Tambor buddy comedy 20 Good Years and Tina Fey's 30 Rock, both have good creative buzz, making the decision to schedule them together in that hour all the more puzzling. Also a big question mark is whether post-nuclear-apocalypse mayhem in Kansas will play at 8 p.m. for CBS with the new drama Jericho.

ABC can certainly do no harm to Wednesday anchor Lost in its third year by pairing its Emmy-winning 9 p.m. hit with an elongated Dancing results show at 8 p.m. Lost also will get a boost from the bifurcated scheduling strategy of running seven consecutive fresh episodes in the fall before the show takes a break for a trial run of new drama Day Break, followed by a straight shot of Lost originals until season's end. And after trying to mate Lost with an equally white-knuckle thriller, Invasion, this season, ABC programmers have been candid about questioning whether that might have been too much nail-biting for one night. So this time out, the plum post-Lost berth is going to the moody character piece, The Nine.

The focus on Thursday will be the 9 p.m. shoot-out between CSI and Grey's Anatomy, but there are other intriguing moves on the night as well. Fox and ABC are risking comedies in the leadoff hour where only UPN has had much luck with half-hours even after the departure of NBC's Friends two seasons ago. Fox is banking on the comedy star power of Brad Garrett in 'Til Death; ABC seems focused on the younger end of the 18-49 continuum with two coming-of-adulthood shows about impending marriage (Big Day) and impending parenthood (Notes From the Underbelly). NBC is sliding its combo of Earl and Office to the opening hour, but that might change if Studio 60 vacates the 9 p.m. slot.

On Friday, ABC is taking a noticeable detour from its competition with two new light hour-long vehicles, Betty the Ugly and Men in Trees--which, if well-executed, could hit the right note for many working-mom types at the end of a long week. NBC undoubtedly will do itself some good on Friday by starting off with Deal and closing with Law & Order: Criminal Intent in the 10 p.m. slot, where Law & Order: SVU thrived in its early seasons.

With a host of changes coming to Sunday, CBS is one to watch, though ABC and NBC will duke it out for overall ratings dominance between the heft of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Desperate Housewives and NBC's new football block. If the stars align for CBS, it could rev up considerably with the move of the family-friendly reality show The Amazing Race to 8 p.m. followed by two sturdy dramas in Cold Case and Without a Trace in the 9-11 p.m. berth that has been home to made-for and theatrical movies for 20 years.

CW's biggest gamble of the season is whether the audience that was devoted to UPN's Monday comedy block will reorient itself to a Sunday comedy block, especially one that begins at 7 p.m. Look for anchor show Everybody Hates Chris to get an even bigger promotional campaign in the summer than it did for the series launch on Thursday last year.

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