Not long ago, if a network or cable channel scheduled the premiere of a new TV series in winter -- rather than the fall -- it was tantamount to a kiss of death.
But these days, TV executives frequently save their top-draw fare -- think Fox's American Idol and 24 -- for what's being called television's "second season." The strategy, which was pioneered by HBO and honed in recent years by Fox, is a direct response to the revved-up, all-year-round competition catalyzed by aggressive cable programming and the demands of an audience armed with new digital viewing options such as TiVo.
"It used to be that if you saw a new show in January, it meant that the show had failed to make the fall schedule," says Rob Burnett, Emmy Award-winning co-creator and executive producer of ABC's The Knights of Prosperity, which premieres tomorrow night.
"But that has changed completely. The network told us this show is too good to launch in the fall."
The second-season warfare starts tonight with the premiere of cable channel FX's Dirt, a racy new drama starring Courteney Cox (formerly of NBC's Friends) as a Hollywood gossip-magazine editor. In addition to marking the return of Cox to weekly television, the series arrives at a time of heightened interest in celebrity exposes, thanks to the recent debacles of Mel Gibson and Michael Richards.
"A lot of people will be back into their routines as of Jan. 2 and will come home from work looking for an opportunity to see something new and fresh," says Chuck Saftler, executive vice president for scheduling and programming at FX. "That's what we're trying to give them with the early January launch of Dirt."
According to Saftler, cable channels such as FX introduce new programs in January hoping "to get a foothold with viewers" before the February sweeps ratings period starts.
"For cable, we're trying to get four weeks of our new series running before the networks start making all their marketing noise for big events during February sweeps," he explains. "We're hoping to create viewing habits that will be cemented by the time February arrives."
Network executives, meanwhile, are making an all-out effort to head off their cable competitors at the midseason pass.
ABC, for example, tomorrow night will offer two new series: Burnett's Knights of Prosperity, a blue-collar comedy from David Letterman's production company about a crew of common guys who decide to rob Mick Jagger's New York apartment, and In Case of Emergency, a sitcom about a group of middle-aged men taking stock of what their lives have not become.
Thursday night, a pair of TV's most popular series, ABC's Grey's Anatomy and CBS' CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, return with new episodes after more than a month of reruns. By Sunday night, all of network TV's top series will be showing original episodes.
But nothing in network series television tops the start of the sixth season of TV's most acclaimed drama, 24, on Jan. 14 and 15, and the beginning of a new cycle Jan. 16 of American Idol, the medium's highest-rated series the past two years.
Idol, with its team of celebrity judges and legions of stardom seekers, is so attractive to advertiser-coveted young viewers that its success has twice carried Fox to first-place finishes among viewers 18 to 49 years old for the entire September-through-May season despite only arriving in January. Stoked by Kiefer Sutherland's powerful performance as federal agent Jack Bauer, the anti-terrorism serial 24 spawned an entire genre of serialized imitators last fall -- none of which came close to matching the original in buzz or Nielsen Top 10 ratings.
"We've made two decisions that have really paid off for us during these last two years," says Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic programming and research at Fox.
"First, never abuse American Idol. We make it a January-through-May event only -- and we don't overexpose it. Second, we took a calculated risk two years ago by holding 24 until January instead of starting it in the fall, so that we could run it continuously through May and premiere it as a big-event, miniseries-like launch in January."
The fact that those decisions last year took Fox from fourth place in January to first place in overall ratings by May is also driving the increased competition between cable and network TV this midseason.
In coming weeks, cable will premiere a slew of such reality series as MTV's I'm from Rolling Stone (Sunday), a competition that pits six young journalists against each other as they compete for a staff position on the counterculture magazine, and Lifetime's Gay, Straight or Taken? (Monday), a dating game in which women try to determine who might be an eligible bachelor.
Later this month, HBO starts a new season of Ricky Gervais' Extras (Jan. 14), while USA brings back Monk and Psych (Jan. 19).
NBC will counter by relaunching Donald Trump's Apprentice (Sunday) after a move to Los Angeles and restarting its fall hit Heroes (Jan. 22) for what network executives promise will be an uninterrupted run of original episodes through May.
Fox will do the same with Prison Break (Jan. 22), while ABC and CBS will go nonstop through May with two other highly successful serialized dramas that had been off the air for more than a month, Lost (Feb. 7) and Jericho (Feb. 21). The strategy of scheduling shows from January to May without interruption is on the rise this year, and it's a technique that network executives learned from their cable counterparts, according to FX's Saftler.
"Once viewers get hooked on what's going to happen to Jack Bauer, or who is going to be eliminated by the judges, they want the show to be there week after week," he says.
"Once the viewer is engaged, don't let them down -- that's something that cable has shined a little light on for the networks, I think."
Though Fox in recent years has refined the art of midseason programming, the practice began in January 1999, when HBO premiered The Sopranos, a crime drama about a mob boss on the verge of an emotional meltdown. The series will begin its final season of eight episodes in April.
Regardless of when the shift to midseason started, the net effect is that the late winter, prime-time landscape has been significantly transformed for the better.
"Giving viewers great programming in January has so far been a pretty good formula for success for us," says Fox's Beckman. "When American Idol and 24 come on, the whole circulation of the entire network goes up. ... The viewers and the networks win."
Here's a look at a few "second season" offerings this week: Dirt - Courteney Cox, formerly of NBC's Friends, makes an impressive return to weekly series television as the hard-charging, morally challenged editor of Dirt, a fictitious Hollywood gossip magazine. The performance by Cox, however, is less noteworthy than the raw sexual content of the pilot. While basic cable has never been this explicit, most of the graphic moments do serve a higher dramatic purpose. Cox and her husband, David Arquette, are executive producers. Airs tonight at 10 on cable channel FX.
The Knights of Prosperity - A team of goofy but engaging losers decides to rob Mick Jagger's New York apartment in this ABC sitcom from Emmy winners Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman. The goal of the heist: an escape from their overworked and underpaid blue-collar lives. The tone of the pilot is uneven, but this is one of ABC's most promising TV comedies in years. Executive producers include Jagger and David Letterman. Airs tomorrow night at 9 on WMAR (Channel 2).
In Case of Emergency - One of ABC's least promising sitcoms in years. Twenty years after their high school graduation, a group of guys takes stock of their lives. The only reason to watch the pilot is to see how many ethnic stereotypes you can identify in the first two minutes. Jonathan Silverman, Greg Germann, Kelly Hu and David Arquette (the same one who produces Dirt) star. Tomorrow night at 9:30 on WMAR (Channel 2).
Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens - The pop photographer's career is examined through the lens of her sister, Barbara Leibovitz, who directed this American Masters profile. Despite the soft focus on Leibovitz's life, her career and artistic vision are illuminated. Airs tomorrow night at 10 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).
Mo'nique: I Coulda Been Your Cellmate - The Baltimore-bred comedian stars in a comedy concert special at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, a maximum security facility for female felons. Much of the language is coarse, and some of the subject mater is X-rated, but the Showtime film does provide context by giving viewers a documentary-style look at the women's lives as Mo'nique visits with them off-stage. Airs Saturday night at 9 on Showtime.