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The 2009-10 network television season will begin to unfold in a few days. Freshman shows on the five networks will be mixed with returning drama, comedy, reality and news programs that have survived another year.


The new year offers little promise with only 21 new shows (a third of those are on ABC). A decade ago, 38 new shows were on the 1999-2000 schedule (of course, there were six networks).


Unlike past years, the upcoming schedule doesn’t have one standout new show — like a “NYPD Blue” or “Lost” — that is sure to be a hit. The series that comes the closest to that breakout status is Fox’s “Glee.” While that show is a favorite of critics, it doesn’t mean the quirky musical will draw viewers.


With NBC’s decision to give a prime-time hour per day to a talk-show host, the attempt by networks to launch “Lost” clones and the continued struggle to find the next great comedy, it is clear that a lot of questions remain about the new TV season. Here are five things to consider.


Jay Leno


A huge reason for this year’s lower number (four) of new shows on NBC is the large chunk of prime-time real estate given to Jay Leno. He will host his own variety/talk/comedy series at 10 p.m. five nights a week.


Nate Kirtman, vice president of publicity for NBC Universal, says Leno will get at least a year to prove himself. That means Leno will have 46 weeks of original programming in the time slot, more than double the number of one-hour episodes from a drama. “There have been three separate studies done as to what the audience expects from ‘The Jay Leno Show’ at 10 o’clock,” Kirtman says. “And all three of these studies show the same thing, that the audience is really looking forward to this comedy alternative at 10 o’clock and that they like Jay Leno; they want to laugh at 10 o’clock.”


Leno says the prime-time show will be structured differently from “The Tonight Show” where most of the humor was at the beginning of the hour. He’ll load the last 10 minutes of the new show with jokes to get viewers to hang around. That’s important for affiliates that want to get viewers to stay for their local news at 11 p.m.


The move is a win either way. If Leno draws a large audience, it’ll be declared smart programming. If ratings are low, the show costs so little to produce it will be a bonus for NBC.


Scripted shows


There are 90 hours each week of prime-time television on the networks, and this year 36 are devoted to nonscripted programming. That number will leap this year when “American Idol” returns.


NBC’s Sunday schedule (because of professional football), and its Tuesday schedule (because of Jay Leno and “The Biggest Loser”) have no scripted series.


Saturday continues as the worst night for scripted programs. ABC has given the night to college football, and Fox continues with “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted.” CBS and NBC are both using Saturday to run repeats of their scripted shows that aired on weeknights.


The nonscripted series are becoming so plentiful that programs with similar themes are competing. ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and the Fox series “So You Think You Can Dance” will go head-to-head at 9 p.m. Tuesdays.


You can expect even more nonscripted shows because networks can produce many episodes for the cost of one scripted episode, which must pay for writers and actors.


Comedy slump


ABC will launch four new 30-minute comedies on Wednesday night. And its one-hour “Eastwick” has comedy elements. Fox will add two comedies while CBS and NBC are adding one apiece. The CW Network, which is aimed at a young female audience, has no comedies on its schedule.


More doesn’t mean better. No new comedy stands out as a major hit, and some are forgettable. The best bet is the “Arrested Development”-style “Modern Family.”


Other ABC comedies suffer from bad casting ( Kelsey Grammer as a former CEO who returns to his common roots on “Hank”); recycled gags (“The Middle”); and one-joke scripts (“Cougar Town.”)


CBS is trying to bolster its two-hour Monday night comedy block by adding Jenna Elfman’s show “Accidentally on Purpose.” But moving family-friendly “The Big Bang Theory” from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. may hurt the whole night. “Big Bang” should lead off the night.


NBC continues to struggle with finding the right blend for its longstanding Thursday night comedy block. The year starts a little wobbly with “30 Rock” on the bench until midseason. That leaves the return of the stinker “Parks and Recreation” and the aging “The Office.” NBC is adding “Community,” which could be a hit because of stars Joel McHale and Chevy Chase.


CW President of Entertainment Dawn Ostroff says comedies aren’t as engaging as the dramas on the network.


“The women who watch our network, they’re so entangled in the relationships of all of these characters. They really find themselves just getting sort of sucked in,” Ostroff says. “And I think, when you sit down and you watch a comedy, there’s a bit of a different experience.”


Competitive nights


The 9 p.m. Thursday time slot will continue to be the most competitive, with networks pitting their top shows against one another.


This year it’s “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC, “CSI” on CBS, “The Office” and “Community” on NBC, “Supernatural” on CW and “Fringe” on Fox.


Fox moved “Fringe” to this time slot, which could be the kiss of death for the science fiction/fantasy show.


It will be hard to lure a similar audience away from “Supernatural,” which also uses the odd and the weird as a draw.


Wednesday is the key day because nine of the 16 shows are new. New shows often provide a gateway for networks to lure new viewers. That’s why the network with the most hits on Wednesday might be in a great position to win the ratings year.


Best new shows to watch


“Glee” is hands-down the best new program on the fall schedule. Because the cast has been promoting the show on the Internet and in mall tours since the first episode was shown in May, it should open to big ratings. The big test is whether it can sustain the viewership. The Fox series faces new series on ABC and the CW and it goes against returning favorite “Criminal Minds” on CBS.


“NCIS” continues to be one of the most watched shows on CBS, which bodes well for the spinoff “NCIS: Los Angeles.” To make sure viewers know where to find it, CBS scheduled it back-to-back with the “NCIS” hit.


NBC has solid new shows with the medical series “Trauma” and the comedy “Community.”


ABC’s “FlashForward” is a mix of action with a mind-twisting story. It is all a matter of whether viewers are ready to get involved with another “Lost” type of show.


The CW has a trio of new shows — “The Beautiful Life: TBL,” “Melrose Place” and “The Vampire Diaries” — that should be popular with their young demographic.


All of these shows are good enough to attract ratings to survive this TV season. But the overall quality is not strong enough to lure TV watchers from favorite returning shows such as “CSI” or “Grey’s Anatomy.”

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