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Improved Fall Leads to Less Midseason Desperation

The appearance of American Idol and The Voice promotions during Sunday NFL game telecasts means the broadcast networks are starting to set their sights on midseason.

But unlike this time last year, when the fall had failed to produce a new broadcast hit, each of the Big Four networks boasts at least one rookie show they can feel hopeful about going forward. As such, there is less desperation— generally speaking—heading into January to find something that works.

“There’s been a lot more progress in terms of the networks, particularly ABC and Fox, establishing a year-round schedule and being competitive in the fall,” says Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming at Katz Television Group.

That early progress is reflected in the midseason schedules of ABC, Fox and always-steady CBS, which will seek to plug the few holes left by canceled or off-cycle shows and get a few more hits under their belts.

NBC, however, after struggling through the fall, will essentially blow up its schedule come January, with time-period moves for Whitney, Rock Center With Brian Williams, Up All Night and Harry’s Law, along with launching at least four new series.

NBC signaled at its May upfront that it was pinning this season’s hopes on February, with the Super Bowl, the return of The Voice and the critically anticipated Smash. The schedule shake-up seems a smart enough strategy, given that the network doesn’t have much else going.

“They need to do whatever they can to find a little spark,” says a rival network executive. “So the shows that they feel strongest about, they really need to give them the best possible chance to succeed.”

NBC brass remains cautiously optimistic about the musical drama Smash—cautious because of the burden of high expectations that comes with being the buzziest new show. And while being a critical darling can often be the kiss of death for a new series, Smash’s pairing with the musically themed Voice should give it a solid amount of sampling.

“I will be very surprised if the combination of the return of The Voice not having to compete directly against Dancing With the Stars and Smash don’t have a positive impact on NBC,” Carroll says.

Launching Second Chances

Led by strong freshman entries New Girl and The X Factor, the network finally has a pulse on multiple nights in the fall. Rivals will surely watch, as they do every year, for erosion in American Idol, but given the series’ thriving despite a judging panel overhaul and time-period change last season, the smart money is not betting against it.

Going into January with stability, Fox can instead focus on launching another half-hour comedy, the revived Breaking In, and trying to pop new dramas such as Bones spinoff The Finder and J.J. Abrams’ latest, Alcatraz. The net also has Kiefer Sutherland returning to its air in Touch, which Fox feels strongly enough about to preview out of Idol about two months before its premiere.

“It’s a show that after people see it, they’ll want to talk about it,” Preston Beckman, Fox executive VP of strategic program planning and research, says of Touch.

CBS will try, once again, to launch a new comedy out of The Big Bang Theory on Thursday, a feat that has eluded the most-watched network twice before. CBS, like the other broadcast nets, is committed to more comedy on its schedule in general and needs an entry that can break out on its own. In January, it will try again with ¡Rob!, a family sitcom starring Rob Schneider.

“When you have hit comedies, you do need to use them to try to find other hit comedies,” says Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP, CBS primetime. “We’ll keep trying.”

ABC will also try again on Thursday in its own problem time slot, 8 p.m., where it plans to premiere the Ashley Judd drama Missing in March in hopes of getting something to stick where Charlie’s Angels (this year) and My Generation (last fall) floundered.

ABC is also counting on soapy drama GCB to take over the Desperate Housewives throne on Sundays; it will launch the former out of Desperate’s final season starting in March. ABC is taking the same strategy of rolling out its premieres gradually as it did in the fall, which paid off for the net in new hits such as Once Upon a Time and Suburgatory.

“Fingers crossed that we’ll continue to have some more successful launches,” says Jeff Bader, ABC executive VP, planning, scheduling and distribution. “It’s been a good first [part] of the year for us.”

And stocking the coffers instead of starting over is a good position for any network to be in at midseason.

“I think everybody has a couple of pieces they can bring back next year and feel pretty good about,” says one network executive. “At this point it’s really just about trying to find a couple more pieces, because you can never have too many good shows.”

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