Pressure on ABC As It Posts Fall Schedule

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ABC-TV: Fall PlansNEW YORK (AP) - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox all have specific challenges during this week's "upfronts," when schedules are unveiled in glitzy presentations to thousands of advertising executives. But ABC, mired in fourth place for much of the past few months, may have the biggest challenge of all.

Despite glazed eyes, ABC entertainment chief Susan Lyne can put on a brave face. Like her counterparts at other networks, Lyne has spent the past few weeks in screening rooms, watching pilot programs to decide on next fall's schedule. "I love this time of year," Lyne said. "We get to sit in a room and watch television all day. What's bad about that?"

It depends on what she's watching.

Lyne must convince them that ABC still has a pulse.

There were indications last fall that some of ABC's new comedies, particularly "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and "Life With Bonnie," were catching on. Their initial ratings beat even ABC's expectations, Lyne said.

Yet most of ABC's decisions after the first of the year have fallen flat. A wave of reality series, including the ridiculed "Are You Hot," were critical and commercial duds. ABC may have killed one its few shows with an Emmy legacy when it moved "The Practice" to Monday to accommodate the failed "Dragnet" remake.

Fox blew by ABC in the ratings on the strength of "Joe Millionaire" and "American Idol," making ABC's failures stick out.

"People are looking for them to show some strength," said Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative Media, one of the ad executives who will make recommendations to clients based on what she sees this week. "They did a decent job of trying to introduce some new series in the beginning of the season, but they didn't get credit for it because of all the reality."

ABC's reality blitz this spring looked bad for two reasons. First, the lack of quality. Second, it appeared the network hadn't learned from the mistake that sent ABC into a tailspin in the first place, when it relied too heavily on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" at the expense of developing other shows.

"It looked like we were changing our strategy, when in fact we were trying to use the time when we were in repeats to try out some stuff and better our numbers," Lyne said.

ABC was too ambitious, she said, and it didn't help that the network had little money left to advertise the shows on other outlets.

In fairness, the strategy of throwing plenty of ideas against the wall to see what sticks wouldn't be questioned if one of the shows had succeeded. NBC is essentially trying that same strategy this summer. ABC's latest try, "Extreme Makeover," is showing signs of life.

Despite the ugly ratings numbers, ABC has at least stopped the bleeding from the past two seasons and will even see an increase over last season among viewers aged 18 to 49, Lyne said. Throw out the years when "Millionaire" was a sensation, and ABC had been in decline for seven years, she said.

ABC had modest goals for this season and achieved them, she said.

The biggest challenges for the other networks:

- CBS, which will probably end the season as TV's most popular network, needs to shore up its Sunday night schedule, once a source of strength. "60 Minutes" is going nowhere, but its ratings are fading and it has the oldest audience on television. CBS may consider abandoning its long-running Sunday movies, which are hurting from cable competition. The jury is also still out on "Becker" and "My Big Fat Greek Life."

- NBC must keep trying to develop new strong new comedies, a goal that has largely eluded them the past few years. This takes on a special urgency with "Friends" and probably "Frasier" entering their last seasons. Perhaps most damaging is that a string of unfunny comedies introduced over the years - particularly on Thursday nights - has created a sense of low expectations.

- Fox is still the reality king, and the success of "American Idol" has also boosted the fortunes of "24" and "Bernie Mac." But the bench of scripted series is still thin. And although the young viewers Fox loves watch a lot of TV on Thursday nights, few are watching Fox. It needs to become a player on Thursday and Friday, and it might not hurt to develop a drama that young women will love.

As for ABC, when you're in fourth place, there are lots of holes to fill.

With only six returning series last fall, ABC had to construct a new schedule nearly from scratch. This year, 10 or 11 series will return, Lyne said.

The network's emphasis on comedy will continue; last season it called the 8 to 9 p.m. time slot "happy hour." ABC is particularly high on three pilots: "Hope & Faith," starring Faith Ford and Kelly Ripa, about a soap opera star who seeks refuge with her stay-at-home sister; a series starring Dan Finnerty as a bad singer headlining his family's lounge; and a series reminiscent of Hugh Grant's "Notting Hill," where a high school English teacher dates a female celebrity.

It's a good bet that next fall, ABC will air more comedies than any of its rivals.

"It gives us a chance to distinguish ourselves and offer a form of programming that audiences have always loved," Lyne said. "Why not take advantage of the fact that other networks aren't concentrating on comedy?"

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