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Race begins at broadcast nets

Next week is premiere week, which can mean only one thing for the broadcast networks: It's time to get ready for midseason replacements .

With the success rate at the network level dipping ever lower with new series, backup or midseason shows are playing an increasingly important role.

If Emeril Lagasse's sitcom does not work at NBC or if Jason Alexander is not a hit at ABC (and that's the current wisdom), the networks have backup plans.

Still, with the economy slowing and ad sales off more than $1 billion, some top executives wondering if the networks will stay with shows longer this season instead of spending more money to launch new ones with full-fledged marketing campaigns.

"I would expect that you are not going to see the [program] buying that existed in the past," says Jordan Levin, The WB's entertainment president. "Because taking a six-episode flier or committing to eight episodes there adds up. You are going to be really happy to believe in what you are doing this season."

NBC has no dramas planned for midseason, but executives say that is not a matter of economics but rather a strategic plan to launch more comedies later.

UPN ordered scripts on two potential series for midseason—Stephen King's The Dead Zone
and comedy Random Years—but neither has a production order yet.

CBS is putting its muscle behind two shows for midseason, a comedy starring computer-generated character Baby Bob and Supreme Court drama First Monday
from JAG
producer Don Bellisario. The network is also developing a number of reality series, including The Farm, which sends urbanites out into the country.

Fox has three comedies in active development and one drama, including a follow-up series to That '70s Show
set in the '80s from producer Carsey-Werner-Mandabach. Greg the Bunny, the story of a sock puppet that becomes the star of its own TV show, is already produced, and former Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter is currently in production on his own comedy, titled Andy Richter Controls the Universe. The lone drama at Fox is Emma Brody, which follows an American girl working for the U.S. Embassy in London. The Jersey TV/Twentieth Century Fox drama is currently in production in London and is scheduled to get a short stint in Ally McBeal's Monday time slot in March.

At The WB, Dawson's Creek
creator/producer Kevin Williamson is trying his hand at a whodunit mystery series tentatively titled Glory Days. Williamson is redoing the pilot for the series, which has a 13-episode commitment from the network. The WB has also ordered 13 episodes of comedy Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star
and of reality series No Boundaries. Comedy The Misadventures of Fiona Plum
is also in the works, and WB execs are awaiting a presentation tape from comedian Jamie Kennedy for a comedy/reality series.

It's unclear whether WB comedy project Cedric the Coach, which was to star comedian Cedric the Entertainer, will ever make it. The series was to be produced by Michael Ovitz's ATG Studio, but the studio's financial woes have left the show in limbo.

At NBC, the focus for midseason is comedy. The network has ordered 13 episodes of a sitcom starring Hank Azaria that will start taping at the end of the month. Also headed for production in late Sept. is Tikiville, a sitcom revolving around a young mother raising a teenage son. NBC executives have seen the pilot for Seinfeld
alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus's comedy ("It came out great," says NBC programming executive Karey Burke) but have yet to decide whether to green-light it for a series. The network has also given a six-episode commitment to Leap of Faith
at NBC Studios, a single-camera half-hour series.

ABC has a pair of midseason series on tap. The Runner
debuts Jan. 7, will air Mondays and will provide viewers an opportunity to win prizes if they can catch the designated runner. Sally Field stars in The Court, as a liberal Supreme Court Justice.