Learn to love `Link' -- or else

TV: Besides a few new dramas and a sitcom with Emeril Lagasse, NBC's fall lineup is likely to dive more deeply into the `reality' pool

Fall preview

May 14, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

More reality TV for us, less money for the networks, and new series for Jill Hennessy and chef Emeril Lagasse on NBC.

That's what the news is expected to be today as NBC announces its new fall prime-time schedule in New York launching the 2001-2002 network TV upfront sales season.

The strange annual dance between the network television industry and Madison Avenue features the six broadcast networks announcing new lineups of fall shows - some of which exist only on paper - and advertisers voting thumbs-up or thumbs-down to those shows with the time they buy or don't buy for next fall. Advertisers who buy now get a reduced rate as opposed to those who wait until the fall and make what are called "spot" buys.

NBC goes first today, followed by ABC and WB tomorrow, CBS Wednesday, Fox and UPN Thursday.

In terms of what viewers will see on the screen next fall, the dominant trend is toward more reality TV.

"Although there is a lot of star power in the comedy and drama pilots, the reality cycle remains on the upswing, and there will certainly be more of these shows in 2001-2002 than in any previous season," Barry Garron, chief television critic for the Hollywood Reporter, said in an interview this weekend. The Hollywood Reporter, a show business trade publication based in Los Angeles, publishes a special section each year on pilots for the new season.

NBC, which was the last network to climb aboard the reality bandwagon, will have "Weakest Link," the English-import that features host Anne Robinson verbally humiliating contestants, on its fall schedule. The big question is whether NBC will imitate what ABC did last year with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and have the program on more than one night each week. While "Millionaire" won't be on ABC five nights a week as it is now, it will be back - possibly as often as three times a week.

The other trend expected to play out this week involves the networks for the first time in seven years seeing a downturn in sales.

"Experts are saying it's a buyer's market. Usually, networks sell 80 percent of their advertising time during the upfronts, but it could be a lot less this year," Garron said.

Last year, the collective take in upfront sales for the six networks was about $8 billion, up 15 percent from the $7 billion the year before.

"The money is down. The economy is down. ... We're looking at an upfront being $400-$500 million less than last year," John Lazarus, director of national broadcast, for TN Media, said in an interview last week in Variety, the other major trade publication covering the show business industry.

Some of the upfront buys last year that turned sour for advertisers involved NBC series like "The Michael Richards Show," which bombed in the ratings. From that failure in the fall to the XFL football league, which was finally put out of its misery last week, it has not been a good year for NBC in prime time. That is one reason Andrew Lack was named the new network president last week - so NBC could promise a fresh start to advertisers this week without a major overhaul of its schedule.

Besides Jill Hennessy playing a medical examiner in a new series titled "Crossing Jordan," NBC is expected to announce two other new dramas. They are "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," another spinoff of "L&O" from producer Dick Wolf, and "Undercover," a police drama set within the Los Angeles police department.

"Law & Order: Criminal Intent" is no secret; NBC has already ordered 13 episodes of the series.

On the sitcom front, "Emeril," which is being produced by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason of "Designing Women" and Clinton White House fame, looks to have a spot for fall, according to Garron, the Hollywood Reporter, and several sources.

The networks routinely decline to confirm schedule moves until they are announced in New York, but sources at production companies and network-owned studios expect two other sitcoms to make the NBC schedule: "Inside Schwartz," about a young sportscaster who sees his life as a sports highlights reel, and "Scrubs," a series set in a hospital.

The status of a sitcom featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, formerly of "Seinfeld," was less certain on the eve of NBC's announcement. It appears NBC will not put it on the fall schedule and risk rushing it as was done with Richards. A pilot featuring Baltimore's Sisqo also appears to have failed to make the lineup, although it might get a midseason backup order.

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