WORLD: Stuart Elliott in America

In recent years, US broadcast network television has started to resemble its British counterparts more closely. Pop Idol inspired American Idol. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was cloned across the Atlantic and NBC purchased the rights to make Yankee-fied versions of Coupling and The Office. Now the trend is accelerating faster than expected, expanding beyond content to embrace form.

For decades, the US broadcast networks were the unquestioned masters of their media domain. The templates they adopted, based on their radio roots, were copied assiduously by those who followed. At the heart of it all: an annual primetime season, running from September through May, focused on regularly scheduled series. The dramas, sitcoms and other shows appeared only once a week, on certain evenings and their dozens of episodes were not repeated until months later.

That model served the broadcast networks well, drawing tens of millions of viewers and generating billions of dollars in advertising revenues.

Indeed, as recently as last spring, the major broadcasters such as ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC sold a record $9.3 billion-worth of commercial time ahead of the coming fall season.

But cracks in the foundation of the broadcast system, once of hairline width, are becoming fissures and in some cases assuming Grand Canyon-like proportions. Among the problems: falling Nielsen ratings; the loss of desirable demographic groups such as younger men to the internet and video games; an upsurge in viewership for cable networks and satellite TV and, perhaps most alarming, the growing popularity of reality-TV series, which work well in short bursts but less so in reruns compared with scripted fare.

As a result, the big broadcast networks are re-examining their most fundamental business practices. Instead of showing 22 to 26 original episodes of a series, dribbled out over a nine-month time span, the broadcasters say they're going to try offering eight to 13 episodes, concentrated over consecutive weeks. An episode of a highly popular series may be rerun in the seven days before another fresh episode rather than waiting weeks to do so. After a series comes to an earlier end, it will be replaced with specials, other shorter-run shows, mini-series and various programming stunts.

And no longer, the broadcasters promise, will they plod down the same path of a fall-to-spring season. Instead of leaving the summer months open to their cable competitors to lure viewers with new series that exploit the repeats on ABC, CBS et al, programming will be scheduled on a 12-month basis, starting new shows in late spring or summertime.

Already, NBC intends to begin its 2004-05 season in late August or early September, to follow immediately on the heels of its coverage of the Summer Games from Athens. If the curiosity of the huge Olympic audiences can be piqued with clever promotional spots touting the new-season series, the thinking goes, why wait to get under way and risk losing that momentum?

Of course, as innumerable pundits have pointed out, by restructuring their business models, the broadcasters are doing nothing original, merely emulating British TV, not to mention Home Box Office and other successful US cable networks. But, as Fred Allen once so pithily put it, imitation is the sincerest form of television.

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