Networks dance the midseason shuffle

Times Staff Writer

TV's midseason kicked off Monday and with it came a bevy of questions: Can ABC lift itself out of the shadows of four failed dramas launched only months ago? Will Fox's "American Idol" build on its popularity, or is it just overexposed? Can NBC get the country invested in a family drama where the father heads a Mexican drug cartel? And if CBS invites Americans to join a big fat Greek family, will they show up?

Each year around this time, networks face the daunting task of introducing new shows to a public that may only be dimly aware that these programs are replacing other shows that have already come and gone.

The flip side of hype that the networks are currently drumming up is that in many cases the shows that will premiere this month and next weren't thought to be good enough to make the fall schedule.

Network executives won't concede this. They will say that a show was simply "not ready" for a fall launch. More often, they point to hit series of the past that were launched as midseason or summer programming, including "Northern Exposure" and "Moonlighting." Or they maintain that a debut in January, as opposed to September, means the show won't get lost in the promotional clutter of new fall programming. Or they say there simply wasn't "room" on the fall schedule -- too many chess pieces and nowhere to put them.

Regardless, midseason shows are also stopgap replacements, and some networks are risking series premieres at the beginning of the February sweeps period, when the ratings game intensifies. And this is just the wave before the next wave, as more shows will debut in March.

Though networks are far more inclined to crow about their scripted series, a glance at networks' schedules in the coming weeks illustrates a tide of staged reality shows -- including "The Bachelorette" on ABC, "Joe Millionaire" on Fox, "Star Search" on CBS and "High School Reunion" and "The Surreal Life" on the WB.

ABC, though, which has already canceled all four of its dramas that premiered in the fall, will send three new dramas into the crowded marketplace. Only a few months ago, the network was evidently higher on the since-canceled "That Was Then," "Dinotopia" and "Push, Nevada," than any of the three dramas the network will debut in the coming weeks. They are "Dragnet," with Ed O'Neill reviving the Joe Friday role, "Veritas: The Quest," which revolves around a father-and-son archeological team, and "Miracles," starring Skeet Ulrich as an investigator of paranormal events.

Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment, said it was too simplistic to characterize the debuting dramas as leftovers from fall scheduling. He did acknowledge, however, that executives do ask if a show they're ordering for midseason is good enough for the fall.

"We're constantly using that barometer," he said. "That's a question we continually ask."

Unlike its competition, ABC has a unique yearly task of filling the slot occupied by "Monday Night Football" when the regular NFL season ends. To that end, "Miracles" and "Veritas" are being sent in, with ABC using originals of "The Practice" at 9 to anchor the night. Scheduling new dramas, Braun noted, is a more appealing alternative than airing movie reruns, where ABC would be "handing over the night to everyone else." As it is, the network will sweat out the coming weeks with movies before launching its new night of dramas.

Braun called "Miracles" a show that "we've been dying to get on the air," adding that Monday nights at 10 is where ABC always felt it belonged. And "Dragnet," Braun said, couldn't have been ready for the fall because executive producer Dick Wolf, who also produces the "Law and Order" series, wanted more time to put the show together.

Still, the network badly needs to establish another drama, given that "The Practice" seems to have topped out in the ratings, while numbers for "Alias," the heavily hyped spy drama starring Jennifer Garner, are flat compared to its debut season.

Fox, which saw its own David E. Kelley drama, "Girls Club," tank after two episodes, is turning to its bread-and-butter -- staged reality series -- to drum up interest. And no doubt the second installment of "American Idol" and the debut of "Joe Millionaire" will create noise -- enough noise, Fox hopes, to drown out the fact that "Firefly" has been canceled, while neither "Fastlane" nor "John Doe," two new dramas still going, are likely to get the network closer to Emmy Award or Nielsen glory. On Thursdays, Fox will try "The Pulse," a newsmagazine that first aired last summer.

At NBC, "A.U.S.A.," which stars Scott Foley ("Felicity") as an assistant U.S. attorney, will get a tryout Tuesday nights at 9:30, replacing the freshman sitcom "Hidden Hills," which is on hiatus. "Mister Sterling," with Josh Brolin as an earnest young senator, and "Kingpin," the pre-hyped gritty series set against drug cartel activity, are also set to debut. In marketing the show, NBC will position "Kingpin" as an event: beginning Feb. 2, episodes of "Kingpin" will air Sundays and Tuesdays at 10, for three weeks only.

"We're disrupting two time periods to do this experiment," said Mitch Metcalfe, senior vice president of scheduling at NBC. "This is a show that, admittedly, we're experimenting with. To do that out of the [September] starting gate would have taken away from our main goal of getting the schedule established."

CBS, looking to capitalize on the runaway popularity of the feature film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," had hoped to get the adapted sitcom on the air this month. The network could have ordered the show for the fall and didn't, opting instead for the freshman sitcom "Bram & Alice," which was canceled after less than half a dozen airings. Meanwhile, "Greek Wedding" continued to prove a juggernaut at the box office, restoking CBS' interest in adapting it for TV. The network would've liked to hit with it now, but the film and sitcom's star, Nia Vardalos, wanted to promote her movie in Europe, so the start of production on the sitcom, "My Big Fat Greek Family," was pushed back until the end of January, with a March launch now likely.

And what of "Charlie Lawrence"? There are seven episodes in the can of the sitcom starring Nathan Lane as an openly gay U.S. senator, but CBS is evidently not jazzed enough by the show to put it on the schedule. A network representative says it will air, but there is currently no place to put it.

CBS has fewer holes than the other big four networks. One of these is Friday nights at 10, where "Queens Supreme," a legal drama featuring Oliver Platt and Annabella Sciorra, replaces the Michael Mann-produced "Robbery Homicide Division."

It isn't hard to feel all of the networks' pain. The challenge of launching a new drama or comedy has only gotten tougher, and cable TV continues to be a flea in the ear of ratings domination. As the fourth season of "The Sopranos" ended, HBO debuted the final season of its prison drama, "Oz," on Sunday. Over on FX, the second season of "The Shield," the drama about dirty cops, premieres at 10 tonight. Thanks in part to series star Michael Chiklis' surprise Emmy win, FX is positioning the show as cable's latest boutique hit. The season premiere was screened for the media Monday night at the Directors Guild of America, and the invitation sent out had the entire cast posed over a dead body, suggesting the show is Shakespearean.

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The replacements

The new calendar year always presents the broadcast networks with the opportunity to plug holes created when fall shows fail to find an audience, move to new time periods or, in the case of NFL football and some short-run reality shows, simply end. Here are the new shows debuting soon:

Sunday:

"High School Reunion," 9 p.m., WB

"Dragnet," 10 p.m. (Feb. 2), ABC

"Kingpin," 10 p.m. (Feb. 2), NBC

Monday:

"Veritas: The Quest," 8 p.m., ABC

"The Practice," 9 p.m., ABC

"Miracles," 10 p.m., ABC

"Joe Millionaire," 9 p.m., Fox

Tuesday:

"American Idol," 8 p.m. (Jan. 21), Fox

"Abby," 9 p.m., UPN

"A.U.S.A," 9:30 p.m., NBC

"Kingpin," 10 p.m., NBC

Wednesday:

"American Idol," 8:30 p.m. (Jan. 22), Fox

"Star Search," 8 p.m., CBS

Thursday:

"Star Search," 8 p.m., CBS

"The Pulse," 9 p.m., Fox

Friday:

"Mister Sterling," 8 p.m., NBC

"Queens Supreme," 10 p.m., CBS

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