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Bruised by tough season, ABC hunts for higher ratings

January 16, 2009 |  4:21 pm

You could think of this as something of a lost season for ABC. Not, unfortunately for the network, a "Lost" season, although that tropical thriller will return Wednesday for Season 5. But rather a lost season in that sense that ABC was hit hard by the writers strike, its once-reliable hit "Grey's Anatomy" has stumbled and no new hits have emerged.

But things might be looking up at the Disney-owned network. And some of the credit goes to ... Jay Leno?

You recall that NBC's "Tonight Show" host is headed to 10 p.m. next season as Conan O'Brien slides into the 11:35 p.m. slot. For competitors doing scripted programming, the Leno switch is good news because it means less jostling for viewers. It's an especially strong boost for ABC, which is chasing the same young-adult demographic that NBC covets (at 11:35 p.m., Leno draws older viewers than most of NBC's prime-time lineup).

Asked about the Leno switch on Friday at the TV press tour in Universal City, ABC programming chief Steve McPherson said, "We're pleased. We think it opens up beachfront real estate to fewer bidders, if you will."

Tweaking rivals for supposedly boneheaded plays is a Hollywood ritual, and NBC has turned itself into such a punching bag that I keep waiting for the inevitable contrarian piece that asserts its programmers' fundamental brilliance (OK, maybe not). Nina Tassler, CBS' top programmer, also thanked NBC for the Leno move. An NBC exec complained at the press tour that rivals were "spinning this in a negative way."

But McPherson may not be just blowing smoke. ABC has been scalded this year by low numbers for its 10 p.m. dramas, including "Dirty Sexy Money" and the new "Life on Mars." Season to date, it's tied for third place with NBC among adults ages 18 to 49. Stealing just a few 10ths of a rating point at 10 p.m. weeknights next season could help turn a weak overall performance into a standout one.

The big question, though, is whether ABC can find new hits. And current evidence suggests a network that's adrift in terms of its programming identity. ABC has had some of its greatest successes with knowing, contemporary shows aimed squarely at young women: "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy," "The Bachelor." But those hits are aging, and "Dancing With the Stars" has brought in a much older audience than ABC has typically sought.

Some of ABC's new midseason shows fit squarely within its customary female-friendly zone, such as the comedies "Better Off Ted" and "In the Motherhood." But then there's "Castle," a crime procedural about a bestselling novelist and amateur sleuth that has a young cast but in basic concept isn't so far away from CBS' "Murder, She Wrote." On CBS, in fact, "Castle" might seem like a fresh new twist. But maybe not so much on ABC.

McPherson seems to understand this. "I don't want to do a total departure and suddenly find ourselves doing CBS-type shows," he told reporters.

But network television, remember, is a business first and foremost. And TV execs, like their counterparts in nearly every other industry, are facing some deplorable business conditions these days. Reality abides, forcing choices one might not otherwise make.

"There's no question," McPherson said, "procedurals are working."

— Scott Collins

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