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Network Execs Search for New Formula

From what they were telling critics at the press tour last week, broadcast-network executives are spending their energy figuring out how to nurture existing shows while launching new ones in an increasingly fragmented business

One popular model is to run limited-run, all-original series and then move on to the next thing à la HBO.

All six of the broadcast networks now consider themselves to be in a 52-week-a-year season, in which they can and should launch shows at any time. They want to limit the number of repeats they air and spend as little money and time as possible to figure out whether a show is going to succeed or fail.

So, for example, NBC plans to launch one show a month for the foreseeable future and keep its summers in mostly original programming. Next year, the network will move up its fall launch by two or three weeks to take advantage of the promotional opportunities offered by the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

"We want to move all of those Olympics viewers right into our new programming," said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, News and Cable.

Zucker doesn't think stability makes that much difference to viewers. The network has moved time slots for its new hit reality show, The Apprentice, several times since the show premiered to big numbers. While other executives say that kind of schedule-shifting hurts a network's weaker shows, Zucker says audiences will find what they're looking for.

At ABC, Lloyd Braun, chairman of the Entertainment Television Group, and Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment, hope to maintain stability by keeping scripted shows in their time slots. But they also plan to introduce short, four-episode runs of new shows to gauge (more cheaply) whether those shows will succeed or fail.

Lyne, echoing The WB Co-CEO Jordan Levin and Co-Chairman Garth Ancier, said she likes HBO's scheduling model. "There's definitely an appeal to a straight run of original episodes."

In many ways, though, the business is just business: Shows come, shows go. Crossing Jordan
is returning to NBC's lineup in March on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET, a time slot previously occupied by Lyon's Den. Also in March, the network will launch sitcom Come to Papa.

Coming to ABC's schedule is Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital, starting the last Wednesday of the February sweeps at 10 p.m. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
will replace 10-8
on Sundays at 8 p.m. They think that may boost Alias. The D.A.
comes to ABC in March, although no premiere date or time is set yet.

On Friday, April 2, ABC will start a four-episode run of The Big House
at 8:30 p.m. USA's Monk
returns to ABC's lineup on Saturdays at 10 p.m., replacing the canceled L.A. Dragnet. ABC also picked up game show Deal or No Deal, from producer Endemol, for prime time.

The WB launched the second go-round of The Surreal Life
on Sunday, Jan. 11 and plans to launch the second season of High School Reunion
on Sunday, March 14 after Surreal Life
ends it run. Sitcom The Help
will premiere on Friday, March 5 at 9:30 p.m. Drama Summerland
comes to The WB this summer.