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Proud peacock is drooping a bit

Times Staff Writer

For years, all eyes were on NBC at the TV industry soiree and presentations to advertisers held every May in New York.

By custom, NBC was the first to unveil its fall schedule, and because its programming held such a firm grip on affluent young adult viewers, executives at other networks would spend the rest of the week poring over the “must-see TV” schedule, trying to blunt the effect of huge hits such as “Friends” and “Law & Order.”

But as NBC unveils its 2005-06 lineup today, it’s clear the TV business has undergone a huge shake-up this season. With “Friends” off the air and new programs struggling, the network has slipped from first to fourth place among the young adult viewers sought by advertisers. And NBC executives admit that, this time around, showing their hand first makes the job a bit harder.

“It mattered less when we were a clear No. 1,” said Mitch Metcalf, executive vice president for program planning and scheduling at NBC Universal. “We do find ourselves in a different position now, obviously. It would be better to have perfect information and to know all our competitors’ schedules” before deciding the NBC lineup.

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The network can always tinker with the prime-time schedule once it has a better idea of the competition, Metcalf added. (ABC and the WB meet with media buyers on Tuesday, CBS on Wednesday and Fox and UPN on Thursday.) NBC started going first in the advertising “upfront” derby back in the early 1990s.

“We were out in front of everyone,” former top programmer Warren Littlefield recalled. “We thought it gave us an edge.”

In those days, the network made a number of gutsy scheduling moves designed to throw off competitors.

Littlefield, for instance, recalled moving “Frasier” from a plum post-"Seinfeld” Thursday spot to a new Tuesday perch opposite ABC’s “Roseanne.”

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“No one expected that move,” Littlefield said. ABC responded by rushing its higher-rated “Home Improvement” into “Roseanne’s” slot.

But that kind of gamesmanship is largely over; broadcasters are struggling to compete not just with each other but also with a multitude of cable networks.

John Rash, an executive at the Minneapolis-based ad firm Campbell Mithun, points out that even though NBC’s ratings have suffered a double-digit drop, the race among the four top broadcasters has never been tighter, at least for young adult viewers. From that perspective, NBC’s decline is emblematic of a much broader change.

“NBC used to be this centripetal force, which all [other] schedules would revolve around,” Rash said.

But now, viewers roam all over the dial hunting favorite programs -- “at the expense of individual network loyalty,” Rash added. In fact, cable networks now draw more cumulative viewers than the six broadcast networks, although broadcasters still have an advantage in drawing tens of millions of viewers for top shows.

In the new television world facing executives now, programs that connect with viewers count more than ever, while prime-time schedules -- as well as who goes first during “upfront” week in New York -- matter less and less.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Prime-time preview / NBC lineup taking shape

The network was still tinkering with its 2005-06 schedule at press time Sunday, but sources say it has picked up four new comedies and three dramas that it would announce to advertisers in New York today:

WHAT’S NEW

“Earl” or “My Name Is Earl”

A crook who wins the lottery decides to make amends for past misdeeds. With Jason Lee and Jaime Pressly. Likely for midseason.

“Four Kings”

From the team that created “Will & Grace,” a comedy about a quartet of young men living in New York. With Seth Green (“Austin Powers”) and Josh Cooke. Likely for midseason.

“Thick and Thin”

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“Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels produces this comedy about an obese woman (Jessica Capshaw) whose life changes when she becomes thin. Martin Mull and “SNL’s” Chris Parnell costar.

“Filmore Middle”

Sarah Alexandra and Phil Hendrie in a comedy about teachers at a struggling junior high. From writers of “Scrubs.” Likely for midseason.

“The E-Ring”

Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper star in a Pentagon thriller, from producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

“Fathom”

Science fiction meets the sea in this drama about a new form of marine life, starring Lake Bell and Rade Serbedzija.

“Inconceivable

“Medical drama set in a fertility clinic, starring Alfre Woodard and “ER’s” Ming-na.

WHAT’S GONE (since last fall)

“Father of the Pride,” “Hawaii,” “Last Comic Standing,” “LAX,” “Third Watch”

WHAT ELSE

Awaiting official word on:

“American Dreams,” the low-rated 1960s drama now in its third season, as well as the first-season drama “Medical Investigation.”

Two midseason shows, “Revelations” and “The Office,” also have unclear status on the new schedule.


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