2006-07 pilots

Changing the guard

Andrew Wallenstein
If the 2006-07 primetime schedule is a puzzle, consider the pilots as the missing pieces.

Nearly 100 comedies and dramas are in contention next month for a dwindling number of time slots on five networks (bye-bye, WB Network and UPN; hello, CW).

But as broadcast execs begin scrutinizing tapes of each project, here's something to keep in mind: Pilots don't get series orders on creative merit alone. A complex web of factors dictate their desirability, and none of them is more important than the scheduling needs of each network for the fall and beyond.

Perhaps the biggest question mark hovering over the 2006-07 schedule is whether ABC will break up its Sunday lineup to help patch potholes on other nights. The network is said to be weighing moving either "Desperate Housewives" or "Grey's Anatomy," which could very well leave the most desirable piece of primetime real estate for a pilot in the Sunday 10 p.m. slot.

"We have three big shows on Sunday, so there will be pressure to spread the wealth," ABC executive vp entertainment Jeff Bader said, noting "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" at 8 p.m.

Because ABC's Sunday series presently have broad appeal, a distinct female skew and touches of comedy and soap opera, the network will likely tap a series with those same qualities.

There are more than a few options, including Warner Bros. Television's "Men in Trees," with Anne Heche playing a psychologist looking for love in Alaska; Touchstone Television's "Brothers & Sisters," a family drama with Calista Flockhart and Rachel Griffiths, or Sony Pictures Television's "Women in Law," a workplace dramedy with Regina King and Kelli Williams.

The failure of comedy pair "Jake in Progress" and "Emily's Reasons Why Not" leaves a vacuum at 9 p.m. Monday. With the pressure on to measure up to the absent "Monday Night Football" and ABC's strong female skew on the night with "Wife Swap" at 8 p.m. and "The Bachelor" at 10 p.m., "Housewives" or "Anatomy" could end up there as well. That would leave room for another launch spot at 10 p.m. because "Bachelor" isn't likely to run more than one cycle per season.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday are other nights where ABC might seek to shore up crumbling comedy lineups with new product. Leading the list of likely candidates for an open slot is "In Case of Emergency," a Touchstone project that already has a six-episode commitment.

Fox will come into the fall largely at the mercy of its postseason baseball coverage, which weighed down its fourth-quarter ratings. All the network can do is repeat the strategy it employed in 2005-06: establish its entertainment programs as early in the season as it can and use baseball as a promotional base for male-friendly fare.

That strategy helped first-year standouts "Prison Break" and "Bones," which gives the network more strength to build around. "We plan to stick with our fourth-quarter strategy again this year, but now we have a bigger stable of shows," said Preston Beckman, executive vp strategic program planning at Fox.

That likely will mean new dramas come in as companions for established hours Monday-Wednesday. 20th Century Fox TV probably had the sexual tension between the protagonists in "Bones" in mind when developing "Primary," which features romantically entangled hostage negotiators; the serialized suspense of "Vanished" seems in the mold of "Break."

"Because we have 'Break,' 'House' and 'Bones,' we have clear targets for our dramas," Beckman said. "Our development was informed by those shows."

A bigger challenge awaits on Thursday and Friday, when Fox will lose some of the few remaining programs it has in "That '70s Show" and "Malcolm in the Middle," which end their runs this season. With Fox struggling on an important night like Thursday, the network might have to make a big move, maybe with its most anticipated comedy pilot: "Raymond" co-star Brad Garrett in Sony's " 'Til Death." If Fox doesn't get a foothold on Thursday in the fall, the long-rumored switch of "American Idol" just might be in the offing.

"Idol" has been a midseason boon to Fox, but CBS also has made some fortuitous gains in 2006 that will help come fall. Early indications are that new additions "The Unit" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine" have the ratings power to stay on the schedule next season, which means CBS may need few pilots to bolster its stable schedule.

"It's been a nice shot in the arm," Kelly Kahl, senior executive vp programming operations, said of the eye network's midseason successes. "As we continue to build this wall, it's (potentially) two more pieces."

But the wall could require some work. On Monday, a slot could open up in CBS' healthy comedy lineup if the network doesn't come to terms with Sony on a ninth season of 8 p.m. entry "The King of Queens." That would likely mean "How I Met Your Mother" would move back 30 minutes to provide lead-in support for a new comedy.

The eye also might try again to reload the genre into the difficult Wednesday 8-9 p.m. berth, where "Out of Practice" and "Courting Alex" tanked late in the season. "We'd like to see comedy viable somewhere else on the schedule" besides Monday, Kahl noted.

The surest bet to join CBS next season on the comedy front is WBTV's "The Class," which got a 13-episode order last year. CBS likely will also go in-house for another comedy or two, perhaps "Play Nice" from "Everybody Loves Raymond" executive producer Phil Rosenthal.

CBS is as solid as they come on the drama front, but there are gaps that could see new hours installed Tuesday at 10 p.m. or Friday at 9 p.m. The perennial speculation that CBS will scrap its two-hour Sunday movie persists as well, which could leave room to launch a pair of dramas on the back of "Cold Case." It's an audacious gambit, but with NBC out of the drama business in the fourth quarter because of football, there might be no better time to try.

The big question for CBS drama is whether it can resist piling yet another procedural drama onto a schedule teeming with successes in that genre. The network has a few to choose from including a project from "CSI" executive producer Carol Mendelsohn. There also are some hours with high-profile names attached, including James Woods in Imagine Entertainment's "Shark," Ray Liotta in WBTV's "Smith" and John Leguizamo in CBS Paramount Network TV's "Edison."

Trailing its competitors in the ratings, NBC may be the most in need of new blood but will likely make the fewest additions come fall. It already has committed to two new dramas for next season, "The Black Donnellys" and "Kidnapped," and a third, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," is virtually assured a spot on the schedule.

"There's a very good chance all three can be used in the fall, but one could be reserved for midseason," said Mitch Metcalf, executive vp program planning and scheduling at NBC.

The midseason emergence of "Deal or No Deal" was a godsend for NBC, which was weak at 8 p.m. every night of the week. The game show likely will be pressed into anchor duty on at least two nights -- Monday and Friday are good bets -- but Metcalfe could see a pilot stepping in on Tuesday or Wednesday at 8 p.m.

"We're going to rely on new scripted development in combination with reality at 8," Metcalfe said.

That means a broad-appeal project like "Heroes," NBC Universal TV Studio's take on superheroes, could get the nod. That likely won't mean stacking comedies from 8-9 p.m.; don't be surprised to see NBC take all its viable comedies -- "The Office," "My Name Is Earl" and, to some extent, "Scrubs" -- and use their collective strength to block out Thursday from 8-10 p.m., leaving room for just one comedy to join them. Perhaps NBC Uni/Sony's "Community Service," with Jay Mohr as a big-city jerk seeking redemption in a small town, may be in keeping with the tone of "Earl."

NBC will get some breathing room when the NFL kicks off a new Sunday night game on its air. It also will be a good promotional base for male-skewing programming to launch when the season ends, the most obvious candidate being the football-themed NBC Uni/Imagine TV drama "Friday Night Lights."

"When we launch Sunday in January, we will launch midseason product not just for Sunday but for other nights of the week," Metcalfe said.

That leaves the CW, whose schedule will take shape in the combined form of the best assets drawn from the WB and UPN. That will likely leave just one or two projects to be drafted from a field of just seven pilot orders. Strong consideration has to go to WBTV's untitled Aquaman project that could be just the companion it needs to keep its momentum going on Thursdays.

And if the CW keeps its urban-skewing comedies together, don't count out "The Game," CBS Paramount TV/Grammnet Prods.' "Girlfriends" spinoff.