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Old rules don't mean much to broadcasters

Monday - 5/20/2013, 10:58am  ET

This TV publicity image released by ABC shows Sophie Lowe in a scene from "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland," a new spin off series from "Once Upon a Time," premiering as part of the fall 2013 line-up on ABC. (AP Photo/ABC, Jack Rowand)

DAVID BAUDER
AP Television Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- The most striking thing about the broadcast TV networks announcing their new fall schedules this past week was how little that actually meant.

Television schedules seem more like sketches these days. Even the networks admit their prime-time plans for September will be different by January, even more so a few months later. That's not even taking into account the inevitable failures among the 56 new series ordered into production by ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW.

Broadcasters are more frequently embracing the cable TV idea of limited run series, of taking favorites off the air for a time instead of showing reruns, and of not treating summer as an afterthought.

"We're not constrained by the traditional broadcast schedule anymore," Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment chairman, proclaimed in a presentation to advertisers.

Television has typically started its new season in late September, a calendar that was set to coincide with the time auto manufacturers rolled out a shiny new line of cars, and wanted something shiny and new on TV to advertise them on. That's the time most new shows appeared, offering a feast for fans and, lately, for digital video recorders.

Not quite half of the new shows -- 27 of them -- will be on the schedules when a new season starts this September. There are scheduled premiere dates, mostly in mid-winter, for many of the rest. Others have only a vague promise that they will appear, sometime, somewhere. Rebuilding NBC ordered 17 new shows, but only six will be on opening week.

Even established programs are left in limbo. NBC's cult favorite "Community" was renewed, with no hint of when it will be on. Same thing for CBS' comedy "Mike & Molly," even with a 22-episode order. The CW will wrap up its "Nikita" series with six episodes, but no one knows when.

Fox's Reilly unveiled a fall schedule, a late fall schedule and a winter schedule, with chips moving all around. It's about as complicated as a pro football playbook.

Fox has also resurrected the idea of miniseries, which will begin next year with a short-run return of Keifer Sutherland and "24," and continuing with producer M. Night Shyamalan's "Wayward Pines."

The idea is to attract top talent that might not otherwise want to commit to a long season slog. Matt Dillon has already signed on for "Wayward Pines." The approach has worked for cable networks, where "seasons" are generally shorter and creators don't have to worry about their shows being abruptly canceled.

The limited run concept is also increasingly being applied to regular series. Fans are impatient with series that are interrupted by repeats during the season, so executives are looking at ways to run consecutive original episodes, then putting another series in the time slot for a few months when the original show takes a break. ABC programming chief Paul Lee said his network is considering doing that with several shows next season, although it's still not clear which ones.

CBS, the traditionalists' network, said there's a risk to this strategy.

"Most of the nights of the week, people want to see their (favorite) shows, and we're going to give them to them," said Kelly Kahl, CBS chief scheduling executive.

Even CBS has scheduled its new serial mystery "Hostages," to have a season finale in January, to be replaced by a new drama, "Intelligence."

ABC's Lee is a big proponent of debuting series at times other than September so they don't get lost in the crowd (even though the eight series ABC is bringing on this September is more than any network). Viewers expect new series to pop up any time of the year on cable networks, and Reilly said broadcasters should do the same.

"I'd like to strike the word 'midseason' from our lexicon, frankly, because it makes it seem like there are only two times of the year when you can launch shows," he said.

The networks have learned, through brutal experience, that viewers punish them for summer schedules clogged with reruns. They've gradually shifted the summer balance to fresh shows -- primarily reality -- but more scripted shows will be there, too. Fox's "24" starts next May, followed immediately by "Wayward Pines." CBS' high-profile Stephen King series, "Under the Dome," starts June 24.

For all the talk of breaking traditions, of broadcast networks losing relevance in a digital age, the annual week of schedule presentations offered a firm rebuttal. A media sector that is dying doesn't invest in 56 new programs, each with scripts to be written, production budgets to be kept and actors to be hired.

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