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Broadcast nets roll em

Welcome to the 2000-2001 TV season, an eight-month stretch that appears to have as much drama going on behind the scenes as anything planned for on the screen.

Every network has a story that will play out this season on and off the air. Will ABC kill the golden goose with too many episodes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Will NBC's top programming executives keep their jobs? Can CBS leverage the Survivor-effect to build a younger audience? Will The WB and FOX rebound? Will UPN remain on the air? Will Pax TV gain a foothold in prime time?

The answers start coming this week with the delayed launch of new shows in turbulent times.

The Sydney Olympics, Major League Baseball playoffs and presidential debates have thrown the traditional start of the season back until today and will push some series' debuts into the November sweeps. The election in November will just add to the fun. And as if that weren't enough, mix in Washington's rants on violence, a looming actors' and writers' strike and ongoing worries about diversity.

"It's going to be tough for everyone to pull off," says NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier. "Every network faces different challenges this fall launching shows. The other networks are not going to have the circulation going into their fall schedule that we will have from the Olympics. But they may not have the baseball preemptions that we will have along with FOX. Everyone has a cross to bear this fall, and it's going to be interesting to see how it turns out."

Coming off a season in which Millionaire carried ABC to victory and Survivor broke numerous summer-viewing records for CBS, one thing's for sure-reality programming will not be taking anybody by surprise. But with the exception of Millionaire and a handful of specials on FOX (tonight's America's Sexiest Bachelor, for instance), reality will actually be taking a back seat to scripted fare for the first few months. Not counting Pax, the networks are introducing 31 shows this fall-16 dramas and 15 sitcoms.

And the networks are trying to complement rather than compete with each other. "You have much more counterprogramming this year than you have over the past few years," says TN Media's Steve Sternberg. "There are a lot more time periods where each of the networks is going after different audiences. If you look at Monday night, Tuesday night-you could almost go to every night of the week and point out how each network is going for a different audience. We haven't seen this in a long time."

Survivor attracted a younger audience to CBS over the summer, and the network would like to keep it. The network has another installment of Survivor coming in the winter, the Super Bowl and a number of new action series and comedies aimed at younger audiences. Still, CBS will have Diagnosis Murder (its oldest skewing show), Touched by An Angel and a handful of older-audience series in its lineup.

"We're certainly hoping to get the median age below 50," says CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem. "What we found this summer is we really opened up our network to a much younger demo by virtue of Survivor. And the 18-34 viewers were able for the first time to take a look at our fall fare early on. And our strategy is and has been consistent for the last several years, to hold onto our core audience and get younger at the same time. And I think Survivor is really going to help us accomplish that."

A number of new CBS series, including Friday night drama The Fugitive, have been "testing out of the park" in terms of viewer tracking polls, according to Tellem. CBS' promotional push during Survivor helped raise awareness so high that other networks opted to get out of the way. FOX pushed Night Visions, a new anthology series, back to midseason because it was afraid of Fugitive and C.S.I. UPN executives delayed the fall premieres of their new Friday night lineup until late October for similar reasons.

The Super Bowl and Survivor II should help carry CBS to victories in households and possibly total viewers for the season. The key 18-49 demographic and other younger targets will likely remain out of reach, however.

"I think CBS has had by far the best development of any of the networks," says ad buyer Paul Schulman. "I think they have improved themselves in a number of areas. But I still think they are going to continue to be a 25-54 buy. But they really didn't have time to know that they could succeed with the younger audience in setting this fall schedule. This fall schedule came out prior to Survivor's success, so they weren't developing 18-34 shows."

Over at NBC, the off-season has not been so kind. First, many of its new shows were panned by critics and advertisers when unveiled last May. A number of NBC comedies have been retooled, including that of former Seinfeld co-star Michael Richards. And while ABC gained ground with Millionaire and CBS with Survivor, critics and top GE brass reportedly laid into NBC programmers for not having a reality hit of their own. That sparked rumors that Ancier and West Coast head Scott Sassa would not be long for the network.

"I can handle any rumors; I don't care," says Ancier. "There's no truth to them that I know of. But again, if I were being fired or if Scott were being fired, we would probably be the last to know. They would probably come down to our office with a gun."

Ancier followed that with, "Look, I worked for [former NBC Entertainment President] Brandon Tartikoff here, and there were rumors everyday about him being fired. And I basically watched Brandon, whom I consider my first mentor in the business, just focus on his work and ignore all of the other stuff. That's what we did all summer, and I'm feeling really good about what I'm seeing now."

How quickly The Emmy Awards and the addition of Destination: Mir changed the buzz around NBC. The retooled Michael Richards show and change of producers on comedy Cursed have also helped quiet the critics-at least for now. If NBC can turn around Tuesday night and get viewers to tune into the tangled plot of Sunday night drama Ed, Ancier and Sassa will not have to worry about their jobs.

Last spring the rumors swirled around ABC headquarters, as advertisers and journalists pondered how the network would handle Millionaire this season. The show had just carried the network to an across-the-board ratings victory, and everyone wanted to know how many times it would air each week in its sophomore outing. The answer: four. A new Wednesday-night edition starts this month to go alongside Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Is it too much?

"No," says ABC Entertainment Group Co-Chairman Stu Bloomberg. "I believe Millionaire's performance is going to still be strong. I think the additional night is really going to help us. In terms of us repeating last year's overall performance, I don't know. I think it will be a challenge to top last year, mainly because we had some big events like the Super Bowl that we won't have this year."

What do the analysts think of four nights of Millionaire? "Since it probably has only one good season left, why not burn out in a blaze of glory?" asks TN Media's Sternberg. "It's very profitable for Disney and it makes a lot of sense to me to have it on four nights a week, because it's not going to burn out any faster four nights, versus three nights, versus two nights. Plus it gives them extra time to work on their program development for midseason."

Because of Millionaire, ABC is bringing out its smallest batch of new shows for the fall season ever-only four. One drama (Gideon's Crossing) and three comedies, including a series starring Geena Davis. The network is sitting on a number of other highly touted comedies, including one starring Damon Wayans and another with Dennis Leary. If Millionaire stumbles, look for ABC to rush on the replacements.

At Fox, executives are trying to pick their heads up this season. The 1999-2000 season was marked by the failure of highly touted new series (think Action and Ryan Caulfield), the decline of old favorites like Party of Five and Beverly Hills 90210 and the quick exit of programming chief Doug Herzog. The network slipped 16% in adults 18-49 for the season and fell off its pace to catch the Big Three.

"Obviously, our focus is on trying not to experience a fall launch this year that was as painful as the one that the network experienced last year," says Sandy Grushow, who was brought in mid-year to oversee 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Broadcasting Co. "Fortunately, I wasn't here, but as a producer of a number of the shows that never got out of the gate, I felt the fallout."

Fox did enjoy some success late in the season, with a pair of comedies from its own production houses, Titus and Malcolm in the Middle. The person responsible for bringing Malcolm to Fox, former Regency Television President Gail Berman, took over Herzog's post. Berman and Grushow have wasted little time getting shows from David E. Kelley (Boston Public), Darren Star (The $treet) and James Cameron (Dark Angel) onto the lineup. Plus Fox has a handful of midseason shows with buzz, including an X-Files spinoff and a drama from Michael Crichton. But outside of Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights, Fox will be counting on new shows.

The good news at UPN is that the network had a strong ratings season, thanks in large part to its Thursday night series WWF Smackdown. The bad news is, UPN's long-term future is in jeopardy. With News Corp. and Viacom battling over the network's ownership, UPN enters its sixth season with some promising programming additions and a lot of question marks. The network grew 45% in adults 18-49 and 43% in total viewers last season, while also adding traction to its Monday night ratings with hit The Parkers.

"Any success we have is meaningful," says UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan. "It will make our affiliates happy, the advertising community happy and also continues to argue for a reason for being a network. We are just keeping our heads down and working hard. What happens otherwise is out of our hands."

This season, UPN has added two more comedies to its Monday-night schedule, including former ABC comedy The Hughleys. It moved its movie night to Tuesdays. It scheduled a pair of new action series on Friday night and will use Smackdown the night before to promote them. Outside of Monday night, it hopes to keep its young-male appeal growing with synergistic aid from co-owned Viacom platforms MTV and Paramount Studios.

As UPN soared with wrestlers last season, The WB grappled with distribution issues and declining viewership. The loss of wgn-tv's cable distribution sent the network into a downward spiral in 1999-2000 and has WB executives working harder this year to regain the momentum it had only a year earlier. The year ended with rumors that Felicity, which had been the network's darling, would not make it back in the fall of 2000-a real sign of the tough times at the network.

"I think there is a sense that we would like to have the comeback that we think our shows deserve," says WB Entertainment President Susanne Daniels. "We fully recognize that we have distribution issues and that those haven't all been solved since last season. So I have moderate expectations this season. I was not expecting everything that happened last year. If I knew then what I know now, I would have hesitated before giving up wgn cable, especially since I felt we had some really strong contenders programming-wise."

Well, Felicity is back, and The WB has added six new shows to its fall lineup, including five comedies. Stolen from ABC is Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and from Fox, the Claymation series The PJs. The network is sticking to its teen-female guns and is now seen in close to 90% of the country-so a rebound should not be far off for Daniels' network. But if Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 7th Heaven and Dawson's Creek start to decline, it could taker longer than originally expected to get to major network status.

For the first time, Pax will not totally rely on off-network dramas in prime time. The network, which still airs Touched by An Angel and Diagnosis Murder in prime, has spent close to $100 million on original programming this season and will have its own dramas and series on each night at 8 p.m.

NBC now owns 32% of the "inspirational" network, and repurposed NBC movies, sports and news are helping Pax move over the 1.0 national-rating plateau.

"For the first couple of years, we worked pretty much on the distribution system and we've made up a lot of ground on that front, going from 60% coverage to about 81% now," says Jeff Sagansky, Pax's CEO and president. "This year is our first real investment, significant investment, in programming itself, and we are really encouraged by what we are seeing."