Hope is on the midseason schedule

CBS, ABC, Fox poised for improvement after rough fall

Fall was a lousy trade for broadcast networks: Four firmly viable freshman shows in exchange for about a dozen failed series, with several other new and returning titles standing on shaky legs going into next year.

But there's also plenty of reason to expect most networks can have a better second half of the season than their first.

Take ABC. The implosion of its Wednesday-night lineup, coupled with the ratings erosion of such reliable hits as "Grey's Anatomy" and "Dancing With the Stars," has resulted in the network taking a dive this fall.

By maintaining an active development pipeline, though, ABC has a flurry of new shows ready to go. After premiering only two new hours so far, ABC will unveil more than four hours in the spring, reversing the usual rollout process.

With its dramas all short orders of 10 episodes or less, though, ABC risks being in a position next year that somewhat mimics its problem this fall: airing sophomore dramas that haven't had a lot of viewer exposure.

CBS also is in position to improve. The network already has defied ratings gravity with "How I Met Your Mother," "Big Bang Theory" and "NCIS" recently hitting series highs, plus it launched the fall's biggest hit, "The Mentalist."

Just as "Mentalist" reimagined Sherlock Holmes, CBS' midseason show "Harper's Island" reworks Agatha Christie. Although insiders are skeptical that its odd horror-tinged format will draw enough viewers, the idea is a clever effort to bring back a faded genre.

But CBS is concerned about "Island's" once-indestructible lead-in. With "CSI" swapping lead actors in January as Laurence Fishburne takes over for the departing William Petersen, the show's ratings might weaken. Otherwise, CBS, the least-eroded network this fall, can likely watch the rest of its season on auto-pilot.

Fox, of course, will improve dramatically. The network expects the return of "American Idol" to be down another 10% and would be thrilled if that's all it's down. With "Fringe" and "Lie to Me" having "Idol" lead-ins, both could hit the roof. Plus, Fox is expected to have more shows for midseason, such as hot prospects "Glee" and "Boldly Going Nowhere," though the once-promising sci-fi drama "Dollhouse" has been banished to Friday nights.

Fox's growth could effectively hamstring ABC and CBS, but there's no systematic reason why more than one show cannot pull large numbers in a time period (9 p.m. Thursday, for example, houses three hit shows).

As for NBC, after the triumph of the Summer Olympics, the network has lived in crisis. Most of its new shows misfired and sparked derision from viewers and critics, and ratings for "Heroes" have dropped alarmingly.

With NBC airing the Super Bowl, the network has a significant platform to reboot, if only it had more promising new content. NBC's only likely bet is the new drama "Kings," but that's only one hour. The network will follow the Super Bowl with "The Office," which should draw a large number but won't rescue its trouble spots.

The CW is in a similar situation, with only returning series "Reaper" and horror-reality show "13: Fear Is Real" scheduled to drop in midseason and neither expected to improve their time periods significantly.

Still, with Fox set to improve dramatically, CBS steady and growing some hours and ABC replacing strike-hampered series with fresh content, on balance broadcast has potential to have better headlines next year. And all certainly will improve on this past spring.

Unless, of course, there's another strike.