Networks Scramble Lineups as Nation Girds for War
Tue Mar 18, 3:02 AM ET
By Josef Adalian and Michael Schneider
HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - The Big Four broadcast networks have a new head of scheduling -- President Bush.
With military action against Iraq now a near-certainty, perhaps as early as this week, network executives on Monday scrambled to adjust their schedules and story lines in preparation for what is expected to be up to three days of wall-to-wall news coverage of the war.
Everything from the opening tipoff of the college basketball tournament to the timetable for the selection of the next "American Idol" promises to be impacted once the bombs are over Baghdad.
ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox all plan to cede programming decisions to their respective news division chiefs when the war starts, letting them determine how long to remain with commercial-free coverage of hostilities. The WB will likely simulcast CNN coverage for a few hours of the fighting.
UPN is the sole broadcaster planning to stick with regular programming, though CBS News will produce hourly UPN-branded prime-time war updates.
Just how much shuffling will need to be done once the networks revert to entertainment programming depends on when the war actually starts -- and what sort of programs each broadcaster already had scheduled.
CBS, for example, has to worry about possibly preempting this week's episode of one of its top-rated moneymakers, "Survivor." And the season finale of the second round of CBS' "Star Search" is set to air live Wednesday night. Since audience voting determines winners, the network might have to pull the plug on the episode just hours before airtime.
Even more importantly, CBS might have to deal with relocating coverage of the NCAA college hoops tourney.
The network is close to a deal that will funnel the opening prime-time round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on Thursday and Friday to Disney-owned ESPN and ESPN2, rather than sister networks like TNN or MTV, should such a move be needed.
The Fox network faces the chance that Tuesday's live edition of "American Idol" could go on as planned, only to have Wednesday's live results show -- in which a contestant is eliminated -- bumped off by war coverage. Fox execs would then have to choose whether to simply announce the loser on its Web site and to the press (sacrificing a big ratings draw) or delay the results show until later in the week.
NBC could very well have to pre-empt its Thursday lineup this week for war coverage. Even though most of its shows are in repeats this week, Thursday brings in the most amount of ad revenue for the network, and money lost this week can never be replaced.
ABC didn't think twice about turning over its prime-time schedule to the news division Monday night, since the decision meant bailing on its low-rated drama lineup. Wednesday through Friday, the network also doesn't have any major hits that would have to be bumped, though questions remain about the Oscar telecast.
Over at the WB, the premiere of comedy "On the Spot," slated for Thursday, might have to be pushed back a week.
Despite making what one executive calls "a million and one contigency plans," the fact is that network brass will be making decisions on an hourly basis for the next week or so.
"I'd love to say we have a well-executed plan, but we don't," one network veteran said. "It becomes apparent after a while of trying to figure it out that you just can't."
After the first day of news coverage, networks will then face the thorny issue of when to get back to regular programming.
According to many industry observers, CBS could be the first network to cut away from news because of its NCAA commitments. Even with the ESPN backup plan, CBS faces the potential ire of basketball fans all over the country who don't have cable and likely wouldn't be happy about not having access to their hometown team's big game.
ESPN and ESPN2 would carry the CBS production of each game and all of the 30-second spots that CBS has already sold to advertisers. All of the ad revenues from the games would flow into CBS' coffers. Advertisers say that CBS would offer make-goods to advertisers for the difference in ratings between CBS' guarantee and the actual audience delivered by ESPN and ESPN2.
ESPN would get the ad spots that would've gone to CBS affiliates in the form of station breaks. CBS wouldn't pony up any cash in the deal, but ESPN would benefit from an audience-generating platform for the promotion of other prime-time ESPN events like NBA basketball, NHL hockey and pre-season Major League Baseball.
CBS declined to discuss how much money might be involved in the transfer to ESPN of the 8 p.m.-to-midnight doubleheaders on March 20 and 21. CBS had to outbid ESPN/ABC for the most recent NCAA basketball tournament contract, agreeing to pay the staggering figure of $6.2 billion for exclusive rights to the games from the 2002-03 season to the 2013-14 season. That figure factors out to $565 million a year.
"CBS is smart in writing a contract with ESPN because the ratings on TNN wouldn't even be close to the amount of money my clients are spending on the games," said Ray Warren, managing director of OMD, USA.
On the content front, programrs are combing their schedules to remove any potentially offensive or insensitive content.
ABC, for example, is still mulling whether the Jerry Bruckheimer and Bertram van Munster-produced reality series "Tales From the Front Line," which features combat footage, would be seen as patriotic or in poor taste in the middle of conflict. In addition, the series chronicles U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and as one ABC insider noted, a war in Iraq may make "Tales" seem immediately outdated.
And Fox isn't commenting on the storyline for its hit drama "24," which returns next week with an episode in which its fictional president mulls whether to start World War III.
The good news for the networks is that it's easier this time of year -- the months between February and May sweeps -- for the networks to alter their programming strategies.
According to WB Entertainment president Jordan Levin, a war will be less disruptive in the coming weeks than had it come during the fall or winter months.
CONVENIENT TIME OF YEAR
"It certainly has come at a convenient time of year when most networks are in one of their higher repeat cycles due to production and inventory demands," Levin said.
Also, given conventional wisdom that an Iraqi conflict would not last long, Levin doesn't anticipate any long-term effect on network schedules.
The executive said he expects an actual war to be "anticlimactic," arguing that the public has already experienced "the most prolonged foreplay we've seen since Ross and Rachel on 'Friends."'
Still, some wonder whether newer reality shows like "Are You Hot?" or NBC's talented kid competition may also seem frivolous in time of war. But Levin said business, as always, will trump anything else.
"I don't think you'll see Fox taking 'American Idol' off the air or ABC taking the next 'Bachelor' off the air," Levin said. "But (the war will be) a convenient excuse to take something that's not working off the air."