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The Future Is Now for Nets

With the upfronts looming, development executives at the broadcast nets are scrambling to put the finishing touches on pilots before making their final scheduling choices. Some networks need more work than others. CBS, The WB and Fox seem stable, NBC needs more successful comedies, and ABC and UPN are in rebuilding phases.

The major networks announce their new schedules the week of May 12.

ABC, though in a better position this year than last, still has plenty of work to do. It plans to continue the strategy it began successfully last year: build strong comedies middle America likes. It also is looking further back in its past for family-oriented, character-driven dramas like thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, NYPD Blue
and The Practice to play at 10 p.m. ET.

"We had some success this season starting to create some of these building blocks. We are also looking for ways to expand family comedies, while finding young-adult comedies that work for us," said Vice President of Comedy Development Stephanie Leifer.

Fox, for the first time, faces the new season as a network with a stable schedule and an either first- or second-place finish in its key adults 18-49 demographic. May sweeps will decide its 18-49 rank.

"The schedule won't look significantly different than it does now. If we can finally focus on Thursday night and get something established there, then we're ahead of the game," said Executive Vice President of Strategic Program Planning Preston Beckman.

Fox is hoping to use the success of American Idol
to launch young-skewing female dramas, such as The O.C., which has a Melrose Place
feel, and Wonder Falls.

Thursday night is a problem for every network except CBS. NBC, the network that once owned Thursday, is seeing its must-see TV decline while CBS's schedule is on the rise. Although NBC can expect a stable 2003-04 with Friends
committed for its final year, 2004-05 could be a different story if it can't develop a show that can anchor Thursdays.

"Our goal is really to get to 10 comedies on the air," said Karey Burke, NBC's head of development.

To remedy its comedy problem, NBC is looking at 15 comedy pilots, as opposed to only seven dramas. NBC's comedies and dramas have a lot of star power attached, particularly Miss/Match
starring Clueless's Alicia Silverstone, Touch 'Em All McCall
with Tom Selleck, Mr. Ambassador
with Rupert Everett, and The Lyon's Den
with Rob Lowe.

CBS chose not to talk to the press about its development plans until the schedule is announced. But, thanks to CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves's slow building of the net's prime time schedule over the years, there are very few holes to fill. Its challenge now is to skew younger, as it looks at third place in adults 18-49 for the season, just one-tenth of a ratings point ahead of ABC.

The WB, after a great year by all accounts, is sticking with what it knows: family-based, character-driven dramas. The network still needs to build a Thursday night, and its sitcoms aren't the performers its dramas are.

With Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night all performing solidly, the network needs to focus on Wednesdays as Dawson's Creek
wraps up its run. The network is working on some known drama franchises with a young twist, such as Tarzan and Jane
and MacGyver.

UPN needs to turn itself around after a tough year, with a 20% average downturn in its ratings. "Everything we are doing, we hope feels different," said President of Entertainment Dawn Ostroff, who is developing her first full slate of programming for the network.