Tracking time-slot tussles

Midseason series, schedule shifts make for new primetime battlegrounds

Soon new battles will wage in primetime: ABC's hit thriller "Lost" against Fox's new crime drama "Lie to Me" on Wednesday, NBC's comedy favorite "The Office" versus Fox's reality hit "Hell's Kitchen" on Thursday and Fox's sci-fi drama "Dollhouse" competing with CBS' Canadian import "Flashpoint" on Friday, to name a few.

Following are some of the most intriguing new time-period face-offs on the midseason schedule, along with predictions on which show will emerge as more popular with viewers.

These are not the easy calls (you can probably figure out who will win the Wednesday duel between "American Idol" and "Knight Rider") but the potential squeakers that could tilt the odds on a series' chance of survival and its network's overall performance.

Some might wonder: In today's time-shifted, multichannel universe, does it still matter whether Drama A airs during the same time period as Reality Show B?

Yup — arguably more than ever before. Most viewers still watch TV shows live. But more importantly, with the ratings standard for what makes a hit broadcast series dropping, how well a show stacks up against competitors often is considered a fairer measurement of success than whether a show draws a huge audience.

Battleground: Thursdays 8-10 p.m.: Fox's "Bones" and "Hell's Kitchen" vs. NBC comedies

Analysis: With rivals airing their strongest shows Thursday night, Fox has been unable to get a consistent foothold on this advertiser-rich evening. Durable reality series "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and "Don't Forget the Lyrics" serve as cannon fodder for such hits as ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and CBS' "Survivor."

Enter "Bones" and "Kitchen," two recent time-period winners that Fox is shifting to TV's toughest night. The crime drama has been strong this season on Wednesdays, and the Gordon Ramsay cooking competition series has grown its numbers every year. Fox isn't expecting to win against the titans; it's attempting a coup to overthrow NBC's comedy block for third place.

Likely victor: Fox will establish a beachhead: "Bones" will move Fox out of fourth place at 8 p.m., besting NBC's early comedies (and, possibly, ABC's "Ugly Betty," too). "The Office" and "30 Rock" likely will maintain their edge at 9 p.m., though the race will be tight.

Battleground: Thursdays at 10 p.m.: CBS' "Harper's Island" vs. NBC's "Kings"

Analysis: Dueling question marks. CBS' new Agatha Christie-meets-"Scream" series against NBC's freshman neo-biblical courtesan drama? Normally the fresher idea has the edge, but what's great about these shows is there's nothing like either of them on TV. Still, there are concerns: CBS has struggled whenever it strays into experimental territory, and the "Kings" premise is difficult to describe.

Likely winner: Based purely on network momentum and its "CSI" lead-in: "Harper's."

Battleground: Wednesdays at 9 p.m.: ABC's "Lost" vs. Fox's "Lie to Me" vs. CBS' "Criminal Minds"

Analysis: This is a three-way Mexican standoff. Fox's keystone new show against CBS' usual time-period winner — both crime procedurals — and then there's ABC's strongly rated "Lost" returning after airing on Thursdays during the writers strike last year. "Lie" has the "Idol" lead-in and boasts a fairly solid pilot, plus the dramas that best maintained an "Idol" lead-in have been the somewhat similar "Bones" and "House." ABC hasn't yet scheduled a lead-in for "Lost," but the show is considered a self-starter.

Likely winner: As a serialized show, "Lost" will drop at least 10% yet probably will win in the demo. "Lie" could surprise thanks to "Idol." Either way, "Minds" remains a good bet to dominate total viewers. Also, Fox holds a trump card: The network could swap "Lie" and 8 p.m.'s "Idol" at any time to protect its new show.

Battleground: Fridays at 9 p.m.: CBS' "Flashpoint" vs. Fox's "Dollhouse"

Analysis: Like comparing a Buick to a funnel cake. Here's CBS' modestly rated yet seemingly nuclear-blast-proof Canadian import competing with Fox's fallen midseason angel. After trying "Moonlight" and "The Ex List" in this slot, Friday leader CBS hopes "Flashpoint" finally fills this ratings pothole. With its other weekday slots occupied by more promising titles, Fox placed the softening sci-fi drama "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and overhauled freshman series "Dollhouse" onto the Friday wall in hope they might stick.

Likely winner: In the short term, curiosity probably will push "Dollhouse" to top the adult demo despite having a weaker lead-in. But "Flashpoint" is almost certain to win among total viewers and probably will dominate in the demo as the season progresses.

Battleground: Mondays: ABC's "The Bachelor" & "True Beauty" vs. NBC's "Superstars of Dance" & "Momma's Boys"

Analysis: This battle begins tonight with a quartet of freshman reality premieres. CBS and Fox will slug it out for first and second place, while ABC and NBC will fight for third with these unscripted shows. "Bachelor" has ebbed in recent years, while "Superstars" brings the "Idol" producers to NBC. At 10 p.m., "Beauty" — about 10 contestants tricked into believing they're being evaluated for their looks but who are being judged by their civility — will go up against "Momma's," which had a modest December run.

Likely winner: ABC is favored in both slots.

Battleground: Tuesdays at 8 p.m.: ABC's "Homeland Security USA" vs. NBC's "The Biggest Loser"

Analysis: Curiosity online about "Homeland" is high, but "Loser" is one of the few strong NBC primetime shows.

Likely winner: "Loser." Remember, "Idol" will air in this time period, too, and being the third reality show in any slot is a tough draw. One expects "Homeland" could eventually work better for the network in a less nerve-wracking slot, like Friday nights, the way the similarly formatted "Cops" has served Fox for years on Saturdays.

Battleground: Weeknights at 10 p.m.: ABC's new drama lineup vs. everybody else

Analysis: Monday through Thursday, every ABC 10 p.m. slot is going to change. There's "Castle" on Mondays, "Cupid" on Tuesdays, "Life on Mars" (and, in April, "The Unusuals") moved to Wednesdays and "Private Practice" swapped to Thursdays. Many air against tough, battle-tested, colon-loving procedurals like "CSI: Miami," "CSI: NY" and "Law & Order: SVU." ABC would be pleased if just one of these titles stepped up and placed a strong second in the hour.

Likely winner: The buzz is mixed on new titles "Castle" and "Cupid," though the offbeat cop show "Unusuals" is gaining industry fans. "Mars" is considered a solid show, and it could surprise after being paired with the oddly suitable "Lost." Everybody agrees moving "Practice" after "Grey's Anatomy" is smart, though few believe the show is creatively strong enough to turn around its ratings. (partialdiff)