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Midseason TV Booms as Networks Take a Lesson From Cable

From ”The Voice“ to ”Body of Proof,“ networks are breaking more new shows in less competitive months

Midseason used to be the time of year when networks replaced their canceled fall shows. But it could replace fall itself as the best time to break shows.

The biggest debut of last season — "The Voice" — debuted in April. "Body of Proof" (pictured, below) arrived in March to the second-best ratings of the season for a drama show, and was the sole new ABC drama to be renewed. In the coming season, all four networks are holding back potential heavy hitters.

Just as surfers famously traveled the world in the film "The Endless Summer," looking for exotic locales to ride the waves year-round, modern channel surfers search cable channels for year-round entertainment.

Networks are responding by mimicking an well-worn cable strategy: breaking new shows during less competitive months.

Also read: From 'Terra Nova' to 'Men,' Fall TV's Biggest Gambles

"I think staggering is a very important thing. It's a lesson we can learn from cable," Lisa Vebber, NBC's senior vice president of scheduling, told TheWrap. "Cable has grown partially by zigging when we zag."

Midseason has always been a place where shows could either land with a silent thud or stand out from the crowd of fall premieres. It's the time of year for burning off unpromising shows or projects from old regimes — note last season's quick midseason collapse of NBC's "The Paul Reiser Show."

But it’s also a time to catch rivals off-guard, like NBC did with "The Voice."

And it's a time when riskier shows can grab attention that safer bets would have siphoned off earlier in the season.

"If you want to take a risk like 'Apartment 23' or 'The River,' you want to get it so everyone can see it, and for it not to get lost in the cacophony of the fall," ABC entertainment president Paul Lee told TheWrap.

He was discussing two of his upcoming midseason shows: the horror drama "The River" (right) and the sitcom "23," featuring James Van Der Beek playing himself.

Other new midseason shows include:

>> ABC's "GCB: Good Christian Belles," from executive producer Darren Starr;

>> CBS' Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal-produced cop drama "The 2-2";

>> NBC's "Smash," a musical that will be paired with "The Voice" on Monday nights; "Awake," one of the best pilots of the upcoming season; and "The Firm," a TV adaptation of the John Grisham novel that also inspired the Tom Cruise movie;

>> Fox's "Alcatraz," executive produced by J.J. Abrams and starring Jorge Garcia, both of "Lost"; and the "Bones" spin-off "The Finder." ("Touch," which marks Kiefer Sutherland's return to television, also is seen as likely for midseason.)

Shows returning in midseason include ratings-magnets "Idol," "The Bachelor" and "The Voice," which will get the prized slot after the Super Bowl.

Historically, Fox has made perhaps the best use of oddly timed debuts: The first episode of "The Simpsons" in December 1989 helped the network compete with the Big Three, and "American Idol," which debuted in June 2002, has helped make it the top network among 18-to-49-year olds. ("Idol" has since moved to earlier mid-season launches.)

One sign that the midseason strategy is catching on: This season, there's a direct correlation between how few viewers a major network has, and how many of its new shows it launches in midseason.

Fourth-place NBC is debuting six new shows in the fall and six in midseason. Third-place ABC, meanwhile, will unveil seven new shows in the fall and six in midseason.

So far, Fox will launch just two or three of its nine new shows in midseason, depending on "Touch." Two more shows, "Family Album" and "Little in Common," are in contention for a two-hour comedy block planned for Tuesdays in the spring.

CBS, the most-watched network, will debut only one of its six new shows in midseason.

Perhaps the most obvious advantage of a midseason launch? Weather.

Television viewing historically hits a low in July, said Mitch Metcalf, NBC's former executive vice president of program planning and scheduling. It rises to peak levels in January and February, when much of the country bundles up in front of the set.

"The realization that January is a great time to go has just been increasing over the years," he said. "There's always been concern that it's just a demolition derby to launch so many things at once. A show can get lost in the shuffle."