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Fall Season’s Crystal Ball

While the fall season is still very much in its infancy, some early storylines are beginning to take shape. B&C gives some early answers to pressing questions that will play out in coming weeks.

Will 2005 produce any legitimate freshman hits?

Probably not. While the networks bet the bulk of their marketing dollars on a few shows to stand out in the clutter, the freshmen have by and large failed to instigate the watercooler buzz that Lost and Desperate Housewives set off last season. “We learned the networks can still get good sampling and launch a show like a theatrical opening, but there just aren’t any big break-out hits,” says John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations for Minneapolis-based ad agency Campbell Mithun.

Which show will get axed next?

While Fox’s Head Cases and WB’s Just Legal were the first to go, money is on either UPN’s Sex, Lies & Secrets or NBC’s Inconceivable. Production’s been halted on both, and they’ve been yanked from their time slots for now. Translation: they’re done.

Who will come into the game after the schedule changes?

While CBS and ABC have yet to alter their lineups, the other networks have holes to fill. The WB says it is not trotting out a second season of summer reality surprise Beauty and the Geek as a stopgap, while NBC can plug holes with Fear Factor and Scrubs.

Does pregnancy blow Sydney Bristow’s cover?

While Jennifer Garner has always been more popular in the tabloids than the Nielsens, there is some question as to whether a pregnant Sydney Bristow will keep Alias viewers (read: men) interested in her undercover escapades. “I’m just not sure a pregnant Jennifer Garner is what viewers will want to see,” says Rash.

Will NBC’s Wednesday night flip pay off?

The early returns were good on NBC’s decision to flip-flop the time slots for E-Ring and Apprentice: Martha Stewart, as both showed improvement the week after the move. But the question is how the reality lead-in will affect Law & Order long-term, which might benefit more from a drama preceding it.

Can UPN keep up the buzz?

UPN got off to a dream start with Everybody Hates Chris beating NBC’s Joey on opening night, and America’s Next Top Model performing well enough that its success was partially attributed to NBC’s schedule change on Wednesday nights. While Chris has come back to Earth, UPN is in business on Thursday nights for the first time, and WWE Smackdown! has given the network a Friday presence. As the season settles in, look for UPN to explore programming strategies to build off the hits.

Can Fox keep its swing after baseball season?

In a complete reversal from last year, Fox has some pre-American Idol momentum this fall with Prison Break and Bones performing well in their rookie seasons, and House showing it can stand on its own. Fox will have the big promotional vehicle of the MLB playoffs for the coming weeks, and will have to use it to recapture their early-season momentum after the World Series.

Can a live debate liven up The West Wing?

Dropped into Sunday’s 8 p.m. time slot with little promotion behind the move, The West Wing has failed to find audience support. A Nov. 6 live episode, in which the candidates played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits have a presidential debate, may help. But NBC needs to do more to breathe life into the show.