It's do-or-die time at the broadcast networks, as executives make some tough choices for next season. On their plates: deciding which current shows to kill and identifying potential hits from more than 80 pilots. Here are some burning questions to keep in mind as the powers that be prepare to unveil their 2011-2012 schedules the week of May 16.
Will the networks play it bold or play it safe?
After a lackluster season, executives are itching to find riskier fare, like the 1960s-set drama Playboy and the Steven Spielberg-produced musical drama Smash (a lock to get on the air) at NBC, as well as ABC's airline period piece Pan Am and Poe, a crime drama set in the 1840s. The broadcast networks have found it tricky to launch complicated series — witness the quick demise of Fox's Lone Star. But both ABC and NBC have new entertainment chiefs, and "my guess is they're going to be anxious to make their mark with really interesting programming," one rival executive says. Adds analyst Brad Adgate: "The networks were criticized last season, so [this fall] they'll put on more cutting-edge shows." Execs also continue to be interested in shows that come with a built-in familiarity, which is partly why ABC is likely to order Charlie's Angels, while NBC is said to be excited about its version of the U.K. drama Prime Suspect, starring Maria Bello. Also hot: Fox's CIA-oriented Exit Strategy, starring Ethan Hawke, as well as the return of Kiefer Sutherland in Touch (likely for mid-season). CBS may stick with tried-and-true procedurals, with cop drama Rookies standing out.
What will happen with Two and a Half Men?
CBS, Warner Bros. TV and executive producer Chuck Lorre have yet to reveal their plans to continue the show sans Charlie Sheen and don't have a deal in place for a new costar to join the cast. (CBS says it won't announce whether Men is returning until there's a definitive strategy.) Execs will likely draw up two fall schedules — one with Two and a Half Men 2.0 in its regular Monday slot, and one with the show's reboot relegated to mid-season. If Men is put on hold, CBS will consider moving The Big Bang Theory to fill the void on Mondays, but it may be loath to give up Bang's foothold on Thursdays. "I'd be shocked if they move it," says one competitor. "They made a big move, and they won't retreat."
Are this year's bubble shows DOA?
There's hope for fans of ABC's Brothers & Sisters, which is expected to return for a final season with a reduced number of episodes (and less of Calista Flockhart's Kitty). Pickups look good for NBC's Law & Order: Los Angeles and Harry's Law, as well as ABC's Body of Proof. NBC's Parenthood and Law & Order: SVU are a lock (providing stars Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni sign new contracts), as is Fox's House, even though it's still waiting for a new deal between Fox and producer Universal. That leaves just a handful of shows still in play, including Fox's The Chicago Code, NBC's Chuck and ABC's Mr. Sunshine. Things could go either way for those series, but with executives looking to start fresh, the odds are long. "If it comes down to a crusty old show and a new show with promise, they'll go for the latter just about every time," says a network exec.
Will any networks add another night of comedy?
A year after ABC's Modern Family appeared to signal a comedy revival, the laughs fell short this season: Just one new sitcom has already been renewed for fall, Fox's Raising Hope. Freshman comedy Mike & Molly is also sure to be given a second season at CBS. Nonetheless, "comedies are vitally important," analyst Brad Adgate says. "They repeat well and they bring in a younger audience." CBS had been hoping to expand its Thursday-night lineup from two to four comedies, but the Charlie Sheen implosion has likely put a stop to those plans. Fox has limited shelf space due to the arrival of Simon Cowell's The X Factor, which takes up at least two hours a week, and the dinosaur drama Terra Nova. But Mike O'Malley's Family Album, I Hate My Teenage Daughter and a sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel are all strong contenders. That leaves NBC and ABC, both of which decided to air comedies at 10pm this spring, rather than launch a new night. ABC has flirted with bringing back its TGIF lineup and could pair its new Tim Allen sitcom (a shoo-in to be ordered) with an existing show like The Middle, but network insiders warn that a TGIF relaunch might still be another year away.
Can NBC reinvent itself?
Things are already looking up for new NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, since singing competition The Voice appears to be a bona fide smash. Now comes the hard part: Should NBC capitalize on that success by immediately launching a second edition of The Voice this fall (airing it at the same time as Fox's Simon Cowell-led X Factor), or would such a move prematurely kill it? "If they tell me, within reason, that they need The Voice, I'll deliver it," says executive producer Mark Burnett. Adds another exec, "It's the best thing to happen to NBC in a long time, and they'll run with it." Greenblatt will now use that momentum to give the Peacock network a top-to-bottom makeover that could finally lift it out of fourth place. Besides the aforementioned Smash, he could also stock NBC's schedule with some familiar titles: Wonder Woman (as reenvisioned by David E. Kelley and starring Friday Night Lights alum Adrianne Palicki), Playboy (set at a 1960s Playboy club) and the fantasy-driven Grimm. "NBC has nothing to lose," says one rival network executive, who believes that NBC will introduce a radically overhauled lineup this fall.
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