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Networks Pay Less Attention To Start Of Nielsen’s TV Year

David Bauder Associated Press

Monday, Sept. 22.

That’s ground zero for the television world, what Nielsen Media Research considers the beginning of premiere week for a year’s worth of new programming on the networks.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, however, from the network schedules.

The idea of an opening week for the major television networks has become as much an anachronism in the late 1990s as rabbit ears or a television dial with only three choices.

Season premieres started as early as Monday for UPN’s sitcom “Good News” and stretch all the way to Nov. 1, opening night for NBC’s Saturday “thrillogy” lineup. The season debut for Fox’s “X-Files” hasn’t even been scheduled yet.

Networks say the more gradual unfolding of the fall season is necessary to draw attention to shows when there are so many channel choices. In fact, the premieres may even be more compressed than in the past few years because Fox is not jumping the gun as much as usual.

Yet not only does the slow death of premiere week confuse fans who have a hard time keeping track of television schedules anyway, it has robbed networks of an event that once meant something to their fans.

“When was the last time an automobile company launched a new fall line that got everybody talking? The same is really true of television,” says Robert Thompson, a television professor at Syracuse University.

That has something to do with the number of lemons that networks have introduced.

But the multichannel, intensely competitive world of television now means new shows also are introduced in the winter, spring and summer and that some fall series are abandoned before all the leaves have left the trees.

“How excited does one get about the fall season when you’re introduced to things that you know are going to be gone in six months, or even sooner?” Thompson says.

The season opening has definitely become more confusing, says Steven Sternberg, a television analyst for Bozell Inc. But the prospect of six networks all launching their shows at the same time may be even worse, he says.

“The reason it’s done is to not confuse the viewers,” says Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Television. “We’re premiering a lot of our shows a week earlier, basically so a viewer isn’t thrust with 14 different new shows in a time period.”

Fourteen CBS shows will premiere in the week before Sept. 22.

NBC is waiting until Sept. 22, although it has shuffled its summer schedule of existing shows to reflect some of the time-slot changes it has planned for the fall.

ABC, with 10 new series to introduce, is spreading its premieres over a month, with the bulk coming the week of Sept. 22.

The extended opening would not have happened if viewers had objected to it, says Giles Lundberg, a senior vice president and top researcher at Fox.

“Viewers don’t like it if two shows they love are scheduled against one another,” Lundberg says. “The goal is to embrace and respect the audience, not to aggravate them.”

Fox did more than any other network to change the way the season opened when it started presenting new shows in August during the early 1990s as a way of drawing attention away from its more established rivals.

It is starting early again this year, but in September. That’s because its strategy is bumping up against another painful reality for networks: Studios can produce only so many new shows a year, and if a network wants to have enough fresh episodes to schedule during “sweeps” months, it had better not start too early.

Since Fox also is touting its “stability” this year, it doesn’t have that many new programs to introduce.

What makes things even more difficult for viewers is when networks preview new shows in special time slots before letting them settle where they’re supposed to. CBS is doing that next month with “Michael Hayes” and “The Gregory Hines Show,” for example.

Sternberg doesn’t buy the theory that more people will become regular viewers of these shows if their first episodes run after a popular, more established show.

“That causes a lot of confusion,” he says. “You start saying, ‘When is the show on?’ I need to look at the schedule grid - and I do this for a living.”

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