For networks, this upfront is a drama

Bottom-line concerns could sideline familiar shows

TV crime show writers often employ a ticking clock to ramp up suspense in an episode, putting characters under added stress to solve a mystery by an impossible deadline. But now those writers are the ones watching the minutes tick by, along with the rest of their show's cast and crews, as negotiations go down to the wire on whether networks will renew several veteran series.

Dramas including "Cold Case," "Without a Trace," "Numbers," "Law & Order" and "The Unit" remain up in the air. Same with comedies "My Name Is Earl," "Scrubs" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine."

"What you're seeing is networks playing hardball, especially with their more mature shows, when negotiating license fees," one network insider said. "There may be a few surprises at the upfronts next week with shows not coming back, or even jumping networks."

With ratings in decline and the networks saddled with covering the full costs of older shows, higher-rated veteran dramas are being given a more equal footing with lower-rated freshman and sophomore shows.

"It's not that ratings don't matter, but it's a little more of a bottom-line discussion now," an insider said.

Of the veterans, "Scrubs," which moved from NBC to ABC last year, looks good to return for a ninth season with most of the core cast expected to come back for at least multiple episodes.

"Old Christine," which still appears on track for a renewal at CBS, also has a standing offer to jump to ABC.

CBS' "Case" and "Trace" possibly are vying for one slot next fall, and both recently had ratings upticks, complicating matters. The Eye's "Numbers" also is awaiting a final word, with its showrunner Ken Sanzel already on board for next season. NBC's "Law & Order" is expected to return for at least a partial season and match the longest-running primetime drama record set by "Gunsmoke." The chances of NBC ordering more "Earl," however, appear slim.

Negotiations continue on fan favorites "Chuck" and "Dollhouse," with the shows facing cost-cutting requests from their respective networks, NBC and Fox, and their pickup odds seeming to shift from moment to moment. Both could go down to the wire.

Meanwhile, CBS' freshman comedy "Gary Unmarried" is inching closer to a renewal with Ira Ungerleider and Rob Des Hotel in talks as the new showrunners.

Another big question heading into next week's upfronts is how aggressively ABC and CBS are going to go at 10 p.m. against NBC's Jay Leno-hosted talk show

The Peacock will have to put some of its procedurals such as "Southland" and "Law & Order: SVU" into the 8 p.m. or (more likely) 9 p.m. hour. And with ABC having trouble on some nights at 10 p.m., CBS could charge aggressively into the slot, shifting a popular 9 p.m. show like "The Mentalist" to 10 p.m. in a bid to take complete control of the hour.

As for NBC's fall lineup, the network's Thursday comedy block has come into focus with new comedy "Community" expected to join "30 Rock," "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," while the multicamera "100 Questions" is held back for a midseason bow.

Other questions that will be answered next week: Broadcasters stockpiled recession-resistant procedural dramas during pilot season, but will that trend carry into its series pickups for the fall? Will Fox continue to support "Fringe" with its strongest lead ins -- "House," then "American Idol" -- or will the network use them for a newer and more vulnerable shows? (That latter seems more likely, with "Glee" mentioned as a potential "House" lead-out for the fall).

With NBC now having a very limited number of slots thanks to Leno, how will they program the two-hour "Biggest Loser"? (One hour is the safe bet, but for how many nights?). Likewise, will the Peacock fill Fridays with scripted programming as it had indicated, and would that put pressure on the evening's usual leader, CBS? Will networks launch their lineups early once again, shortening the summer?

Tune in next week.