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ABC and NBC make big bets while Fox and CBS play safe this fall

The official start date of the fall TV season is still two weeks away, but some networks are jumping the gun in the hopes of grabbing some early momentum before the airwaves are filled with new shows and viewers are struggling to figure out what to watch and what to ignore.

Tonight, NBC premieres the third season of its singing competition show “The Voice” along with a sneak preview of its new Ryan Murphy sitcom “The New Normal.” On Wednesday, Fox will debut its revamped version of “The X Factor” with new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato and on Thursday “Glee” is back in its new Thursday time slot. ABC gets into the act on Friday with the season premieres of “Shark Tank” and “What Would You Do?”

In total, there are 21 new shows premiering this fall on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and the CW. As if promoting all those shows wasn’t enough of a headache, the presidential campaigns and the debates that go with it are making scheduling more of a headache than usual for network brass.

There are three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate in October. Networks are naturally wary of debuting a new show only to have it preempted a week later because of a debate. That’s why ABC is holding off premiering its highly anticipated new drama “Nashville” until Oct. 10. In a normal year, “Nashville” would have premiered on Sept. 26. But this year that would have meant preempting the second episode on Oct. 3 for a debate and made getting traction more difficult.

The CW Network is taking a different approach. It seems to think that the majority of its young audience isn’t going to be interested in hearing what President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney or their respective vice presidents have to say and is premiering some of its new shows opposite the debates.

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Heading into the new season, NBC and ABC are seen as having the biggest holes to fill, while CBS and Fox are viewed as having the strongest hands.

At NBC, the network is betting big on “The Voice,” which runs for two hours on Monday and one hour on Tuesday (this week, there will even be a Wednesday edition of “The Voice”). But there are concerns that the network is risking laryngitis by overexposing the show, especially since it will be on twice during the season instead of just once, as was previously the case.

Besides “The Voice,” NBC is launching four new comedies. In addition to the above-mentioned “The New Normal” about a gay couple trying to have a child, there is a Matthew Perry sitcom called “Go On,” (think “Community” in a group therapy setting), the slapstick comedy “Animal Practice” and the self-explanatory “Guys with Kids.” NBC does have two promising midseason comedies in “Save Me” and “1600 Penn.”

“They’ll need at least two of those comedies to hit,” said Jackie Kulesza, a senior vice president at the media buying firm Starcom.

On the drama front, NBC is banking on “Revolution” from J.J. Abrams about the aftermath of an electrical outage that leaves the world in darkness and the people at war with each other. It follows “The Voice” and will either be the next “Lost” or it will be lost in a few weeks.

One of NBC’s more puzzling moves was the decision to keep its news magazine “Rock Center” not only on the schedule but in the Thursday 10 p.m. time slot, which is a valuable piece of real estate because it is the night movie studios and auto dealers spend heavily.

NBC insiders have said their strategy is to rebuild night by night, starting with Monday rather than putting all their chips on Thursday.

At ABC, questions include weather “Revenge” can fill the void left by “Desperate Housewives” on Sunday nights and if a comedy about aliens from outer space will click or be this year’s “Work It,” the network’s ill-fated sitcom about two guys who dress in drag to land jobs.

“Revenge” built a nice audience on Wednesday nights but asking it to take on the 9 p.m. Sunday slot “Desperate Housewives” may be too much too soon. It will compete head-to-head with “The Good Wife,” which also does well with female viewers.

ABC’s big bet is on “Nashville.” The show about an aging country music star forced to go on the road with a young upstart has gotten strong buzz from critics and media buyers. Internally, there were questions about whether the title would turn off viewers who aren’t fans of the genre. However, the show isn’t just country music. There is plenty of family and political drama.

Brad Adgate, an analyst at media buying firm Horizon Media said one of ABC’s dilemmas is that most of its new and returning shows “have a very pronounced female audience that is getting older.”

At CBS, the strategy is stability. Already the most-watched network and closing in on Fox’s lead in the key 18-to-49 demographic, CBS is launching just four new shows -- the sitcom “Partners” and dramas “Vegas,” “Elementary” and “Made in Jersey.” Of the four, “Elementary” (Thursday 10 p.m.), a modern take on Sherlock Holmes, and “Vegas” (Tuesdays 10 p.m.) starring Michael Chiklis as a mafia boss trying to takeover Sin City and Dennis Quaid as the lawman trying to stop him, are the favorites of critics.

However, it is the sitcom “Partners” about two friends -- one gay and one straight -- who run a business that is seen as mostly likely to live to a second season, but that is primarily because of a cushy time slot on Mondays at 8:30 p.m. between “How I Met Your Mother” and “Two Broke Girls.”

For Fox, its goals are simple: Make Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor” into the smash hit it was supposed to be last year and establish its Tuesday night comedies. The addition of Spears and Lovato to “The X Factor” should mean strong opening numbers. However, the chemistry between the two singers and Cowell will have to be strong to keep the show from being just another singing competition in an already overcrowded environment.

Fox thinks it has winners in “Ben and Kate,” about a brother and sister who can’t stay out of each other’s way and “The Mindy Project” starring Mindy Kaling (“The Office”) as an OB/GYN who struggles to have a decent social life.

The network’s other big move was taking “Glee” from Tuesday and moving it to Thursday where, it will follow that night’s edition of “The X Factor” in the fall and “American Idol” in the spring.

“Glee” is hoping that the addition of Kate Hudson as a guest star and some other new characters will boost its audience. Otherwise, the clock may start ticking on the musical comedy.

“Glee needs a ratings turnaround,” Adgate warned.

Fox will also face its usual challenge of trying to maintain whatever ratings momentum it has in September and early October after its schedule is interrupted for postseason baseball, including the World Series.

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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.


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