World: Stuart Elliott in America

For Americans who feel the 7-Eleven convenience store chain, named after the hours it is open (7am to 11pm), isn't convenient enough, there are now retailers open 24/7, as in 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The next step on that road to continuous convenience is the 52-week-a-year TV schedule, now closer to reality than ever after some radical schedule revamping by most of the major US broadcast networks.

For years, the broadcasters have complained they lose audiences each summer, when their traditional prime-time schedules are completed and they switch over to re-runs, "busted pilots" (sample episodes of series that don't get picked up for the fall) and other fill-in fare. But with the rise of cable networks, satellite TV and other alternatives, the viewers the broadcast networks had taken for granted started drifting away, first in small amounts, more recently in a torrent of defectors. That led to record low summer ratings - much to the chagrin of advertisers shelling out good money to buy commercial time in June, July or August.

In the meantime, audiences were flocking to new series on cable networks such as Bravo and FX including Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Nip/Tuck - much to the delight of advertisers shelling out little money initially to buy airtime on those unproven, but soon-to-be hit, shows.

Determined to stem the erosion and bring audiences back, the broadcasters are overhauling their line-ups to emphasise more first-run programming.

At the presentations in New York last month that served as the prelude to the upfront market - when the broadcasters sell as much as 80 per cent of the commercial time in the upcoming autumn season - they vowed to get back in the game.

The most ambitious effort is from Fox Broadcasting, which proclaimed "a trailblazing year-round programming initiative" for the 2004-5 season.

Fox intends to start the season this month instead of September, with more than half-a-dozen new series that range from North Shore, a drama set at a luxury hotel in Hawaii, to the return of the outrageous reality show The Simple Life, pairing Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on a cross-country road trip in a caravan.

So committed is Fox to the year-round model that it provided agency media buyers with three, count 'em, three, schedules, for June to October, November to January and January to June (October is largely given over to baseball playoff games).

ABC, NBC and WB also say they'll freshen their offerings throughout the year by cutting down on repeats of serialised dramas such as Alias, Everwood, NYPD Blue and The West Wing, which don't re-run well because most fans watch them the first time they're on.

Of the big networks, only CBS pooh-poohed the idea, claiming that a "limited series", brought in to spell a schedule mainstay, is just another name for that old standby, the mini-series.

Call it what you will, viewers weary of seemingly endless re-runs are likely to welcome the changes, meaning advertisers and agencies will be happy, too. After all, the concept worked decades ago when the broadcasters would run their primetime series for 39 weeks, then bring in the "summer replacements" shows for 13 weeks.

Once more, when it comes to American TV, everything old is new again.

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