Fall TV Season Pushed Back

Monday, September 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — It's late September. The air is crisper, footballs are flying and after months of reruns, television viewers are finally rewarded with new shows and returning favorites.

Well, at least two out of the three are true this year.

Fall is arriving a little late in TV land. And between the Olympics, baseball and presidential debates, television executives are wondering if viewers will have much of a chance this season to settle into old habits and create new ones.

``All the planets are aligned to make us run for the Pepto-Bismol and the Tums,'' said Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic programming at Fox.

At the urging of ABC, CBS and Fox, Nielsen Media Research pushed the official starting date of the new TV season back two weeks to Oct. 2. Since NBC is dominating prime-time now with the Olympics, their rivals felt it would give NBC an unfair head start for ratings bragging rights for the season.

With no meaningful incentive to compete against the Olympics, most networks have held back their new material. The exceptions are the mini-networks (UPN, the WB and Pax TV), which have rolled out some new shows to entice bored channel surfers.

Then, just when the networks were ready to get rolling on Oct. 2, the first presidential debate was scheduled for Oct. 3 and the vice presidential debate for two nights later.

Some quick shuffling ensued: NBC's prized Thursday night lineup pushed back its season premieres to Oct. 12. The CBS hit, ``Judging Amy,'' was delayed for a week, and so was ABC's new sitcom starring Geena Davis.

Fox has chosen not to cover the debates. But since it is broadcasting baseball playoffs and the World Series, some of its most popular programs won't appear with new episodes until November, including ``The X-Files,'' ``The Simpsons'' and ``Malcolm in the Middle.''

NBC is also covering the baseball playoffs, which has prevented ``Providence'' from starting until Oct. 20 and ``Frasier'' until Oct. 24.

Viewers may not be that confused about NBC's schedule, since it is able to promote its programs relentlessly during the Olympics. Its rivals don't have that luxury. Fox, for instance, is buying more billboard space and radio ads because it can't count on many viewers during the Olympics weeks, Beckman said.

But in this post-``Survivor'' era, the fall TV premiere season — an institution as old as television itself — may be becoming an anachronism anyway.

``More and more, the networks are moving toward a year-round program development strategy,'' said Bob Flood, senior vice president at the advertising firm Optimedia International.

Take the two TV sensations of the past year: ``Survivor'' was a summer series, starting in late May and climaxing in August. ``Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'' debuted in August 1999 and didn't join ABC's regular schedule until the following January.

Midseason can often be a launching pad for hits, such as ``Providence'' and ``Malcolm in the Middle.'' Networks are more apt to try new shows at any point in the year now.

Some producers of new programs actually prefer to start anytime but the fall, since it's easier in autumn for their shows to get lost in the avalanche of new things and be overlooked by viewers.

Increasingly influential cable networks don't live by the same schedule. HBO's ``Sex and the City'' is a summer series, and ``The Sopranos'' won't start up again until next March. Some cable networks save their high-profile programming for when the broadcasters go on a break: June is usually premiere month for Comedy Central.

Still, Beckman isn't ready to give up the old way of doing things.

Even though the odds of a new fall series becoming a hit are long, they are historically better than shows that start at other times of the year, he said. Broadcasters tend to save for midseason programs that they didn't think were quite good enough for the fall schedule, he said.

``There's a cycle to the seasons and the viewers still look to the networks in September for new material, just like cars are introduced at a certain time,'' Beckman said. ``It's the time of the year when people are used to seeing the goods that the networks have. They are sensitive to it. They're attuned to it.''

With summer over and the nights getting longer, people naturally gravitate to spending more time in front of the tube.

The television business is built around the announcement of a new fall schedule each spring, and the resulting rush of advertisers to buy commercial time. Even though networks are slowly becoming more cognizant of keeping their audiences happy throughout the year, that structure isn't likely to change.

In the meantime, viewers, be patient. The reruns WILL end eventually.

Check your listings.