Networks eye early start

Looking to get a jump on the upcoming TV season

Marred in double-digit ratings declines, the broadcast networks probably can't wait for the strike-impacted 2007-08 season to be over. But they also might be eager to get a fresh start with next season sooner than expected.

Fox is likely to kick-start its schedule the week of Aug. 25, a month before the official start of the broadcast season.

The CW is said to be mulling an even earlier return, possibly in early August. Even CBS -- which traditionally has been very conservative, rolling out most of its shows during premiere week -- might get a jump a week earlier.

A big incentive for early launches is the Summer Olympics in Beijing, which will air on NBC.

For the Peacock, launching a fall lineup right after its presentation of the Olympics closing ceremony Aug. 24 makes sense -- sluicing viewers right into such returning hits as "The Biggest Loser" and "The Office."

But an early rollout also would benefit NBC's rivals, which could pick up some of the viewers drawn to broadcast TV by the Olympics. During the Athens Summer Olympics in 2004, overall television audience viewing rose 10%, bridging about half the distance between summer levels and regular in-season levels. Such a rising audience tide can lift all network boats.

"The sooner the networks get past repeats and get past this season the better," said John Rash, senior vp at media agency Campbell Mithun. "It's wise for NBC's rivals to not allow it to have the exclusive post-Olympics promotional platform. They need to compete vigorously once the Olympics end."

Another factor is the writers strike.

Some shows such as NBC's "Heroes" and ABC's "Pushing Daisies" will have been off the network schedules since last year. Given the recent ratings decreases suffered by network dramas that returned after only a few months off the air, broadcasters would rather not make viewers wait longer than necessary.

The networks already are going with extended orders for next season to some of their hit series, including NBC's "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" and the CW's "Gossip Girl."

Launching early could also help networks recoup lost ad revenue during this strike-addled fiscal year.

Premiering a fall lineup early is not completely new. Fox has premiered some shows in late August the past several years in support of its Major League Baseball playoff games and to try and get a jump on the competition.