Joe Flint
June 04, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Fall strategies: Nets gear up for Thursday-night fights, and Ally does a double take

During the recent unveiling of the Big Six networks’ fall schedules, NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa had a message for the competition: ”We don’t have to hurt each other in order to succeed.”

Apparently, no one was listening. The Peacock’s five rival nets have all decided to take a whack at toppling NBC’s dominant Thursday-night lineup. It’s no wonder the other nets smell blood: Although Friends is still strong, Frasier‘s not delivering those Seinfeld numbers, ER‘s ratings have slipped since George Clooney left, and Jesse is still unproven.

”There’s an opportunity,” says ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses. ”NBC’s drops are going to be even further,” predicts CBS TV CEO Les Moonves.

The nets will be attacking the Must See monster from all sides. UPN and Fox are looking to lure away men, with the former airing two hours of wrestling and the latter fielding Manchester Prep (a new drama about oversexed teens from Cruel Intentions director Roger Kumble), Family Guy, and Jay Mohr’s ribald new comedy Action. On the other hand, ABC and The WB have their sights set on young women, with the Alphabet offering the romantic comedy Then Came You and Wasteland, creator Kevin Williamson’s (Dawson’s Creek) take on twentysomething angst. The WB’s launching its Thursday night with the new Heathers-esque drama Popular and the sophomore Charmed.

CBS hopes a revamped Chicago Hope (with creator David E. Kelley and star Mandy Patinkin returning and Lauren Holly joining) can lure some of NBC’s older audience to the Eye. ”NBC will still win,” Moonves says, ”but everybody will chip away some of their audience.”

If the strategy du jour is wreaking Must See mayhem, the TV buzzword of the moment is repurposing (i.e., to use over and over again). For example, instead of saying ”I’m wearing the shirt I wore yesterday,” you can now say, ”I’m repurposing this shirt.”

Of course, Fox is hoping you won’t see it that way. In what the net’s calling a stroke of genius, Ally McBeal creator Kelley is taking old hour-long episodes of Ally and reshaping them into a separate 30-minute sitcom on Tuesdays. He’s even adding bits of unseen footage so Fox can promote this Ally as being new. But any way you slice it, it’ll still be a clip show.

Fox has two reasons for this confounding decision. An Ally clone is cheaper than creating an entirely new show. And TV stations pay more for half-hour than one-hour reruns because they’re easier to schedule. Thus, Kelley can make a double killing by selling hour-long episodes to cable and the half-hour reruns to local TV stations.

Fox execs claim that viewers also come out winners in this scenario, since, they say, there’s been a great demand for more Ally. Maybe so, but prime-time reruns probably weren’t exactly what viewers had in mind. And given the ongoing battle with cable, shouldn’t networks be going out of their way to differentiate themselves by creating more original programming, rather than adopting cable’s low-budget regurgitation game plan?

“You’ll see a lot more of this,” says Fox Entertainment prez Doug Herzog. Great, maybe NBC will edit old episodes of Friends and break it up by character — Monica Monday, Chandler Tuesday, Phoebe Wednesday…

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