There's a hint of fall in the airwaves.
TV this month will look a lot like September. The networks will debut 11 series and offer season premieres of six returning shows, including two well-loved action dramas and America's most popular reality series.
Much of the turmoil comes from Fox, implementing the meatiest segment of the year-round programming plan it has adopted, in part to address the mess that postseason baseball inflicts on its fall schedule. But five of the six networks have at least one new show this month; the WB takes a pass.
Old friends include ABC's Alias (returning Wednesday) and Fox's 24 (Jan. 9), and The Bernie Mac Show (Jan. 14). American Idol (Jan. 18), on Fox, leads a reality parade that marks the return of ABC's The Bachelorette (Jan. 10) and millionaire debu-trash Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in The Simple Life 3 (Jan. 26). This time, the affluent daughters of ditz ride the Greyhound through the Northeast, stopping to "work" odd jobs, instilling lust in the locals and fears of bankruptcy in their employers. The Apprentice 3, pitting college grads against noncollege grads, premieres Jan. 20.
Compressed schedules in the brave new world of reality require recharging at the networks. Survivor, The Bachelor and America's Next Top Model have wrapped their fall runs. With football finishing up, ABC will fill Monday night entirely with reality, as it watches ratings thud like a sacked quarterback.
The genre ain't what it used to be. Except for Top Model, all the series that eliminate contestants week after week lost viewers in the fall, and the industry, especially Fox, will watch to see if reality king American Idol, so crucial to the network's ratings success, will hold up.
But the right concept could reverse the trend, and NBC may have found it with The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search (8 p.m. Wednesday). Hot chicks in next to nothing, trying to outdo one another as sex objects _ just the thing for family viewing.
If you think that's bad, check out Fox's one-shot (thank goodness) Monday show, Who's Your Daddy?, in which a woman, adopted as an infant, tries to select her biological father from eight contestants. An impostor who fools her gets a cash prize, to make up for his loss of self-respect. If she gets it right, she gets not only a new daddy but money to support him. Here's hoping that the many groups protesting this show will keep it off the air, or at least limit it to one broadcast.
Three new dramas look promising. Though most shows with weird titles fade fast, CBS's Numb3rs assembles a crackerjack cast under the tutelage of first-rate feature-film brother act Tony and Ridley Scott (it premieres Jan. 23 after the NFL's AFC Championship Game, then moves to its regular slot, 10 p.m. Friday, on Jan. 28). NBC's Medium (Monday) _ created by Glenn Gordon Caron, the man behind the scintillating '80s series Moonlighting _ stars Patricia Arquette as a woman who can talk to the dead. Fox's Point Pleasant (debuts Jan. 19, moves the next night to its regular spot, 9 p.m. Thursday) comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer-roducer Marti Noxon.
NIGHT BY NIGHT IN JANUARY
MONDAY: Medium (10 p.m., WFLA-Ch. 8). Arquette would like to help the cops solve grisly cases, but first they must believe she actually can communicate with ghosts. Based on the life of a real person.
TUESDAY: Committed (9:30, WFLA). Paranoid boy meets incurable optimist girl. Sparks fly. Laughs, too, NBC hopes, but just in case, a clown (Tom Poston) lives in her closet. I am not making this up.
WEDNESDAY: The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search (8, WFLA).
The Road to Stardom With Missy Elliott (8, WTOG-Ch. 44). The hip-hop biggie takes 13 would-be music stars on tour. One will get a record contract.
Alias (9, WFTS-Ch. 28). Jennifer Garner returns in a two-hour premiere as the spy of a thousand gorgeous faces. The show will run on this day and time with no repeats to the end of the season, making an attractive action package with executive producer J.J. Abrams' other series, Lost, at 8.
THURSDAY: Wickedly Perfect (8, WTSP-Ch. 10). Annoying style mavens bicker and luxuriate on a New England estate. The network thinks the winner of this show will become "the country's new authority on at-home living."
SATURDAY: The Will (8, WTSP). Grasping friends and family try to persuade rich guy Bill Long, 73, to leave them his big Kansas spread. Among the contestants: his fourth wife, 45, and her mother, who's the same age as Long. The show and its characters seem so outrageous, it might actually work.
JAN. 9: 24 (8, WTVT-Ch. 13). Kiefer Sutherland is back as Jack Bauer, who'll be given another day to save the world. Virtually every other regular will be missing at the beginning, but anyone could turn up later. The producers really do make the story up as they go along. After a two-hour Sunday premiere, the show moves Jan. 10 to its regular 9 p.m. Monday slot, and, like Alias, it runs straight through to May.
JAN. 10: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition: How'd They Do That? (8, WFTS). Either desperate or with a flat learning curve, ABC starts to drive another successful show into the ground with this "behind-the-scenes" series.
The Bachelorette (9, WFTS). Bachelor love-loser Jen Schefft seeks new romance in New York.
Jan. 14: The Bernie Mac Show (8, WTVT). New episodes at 8, reruns at 8:30.
Jonny Zero (9, WTVT). Ex-con Jonny tries to avoid (1) returning to a life of crime and (2) going undercover for the FBI. With actors named Franky G and GQ, this one may be too cool for its Friday-night room.
Jan. 17: Supernanny (10, WFTS). This show rounds out ABC's night of phony reality with a child-rearing genius who answers beleaguered parents' prayers.
Jan. 18: American Idol (8, WTVT). Same aggravating judges, new irritating contestants. Same Tuesday-Wednesday show schedule.
Jan. 19: Point Pleasant (9, WTVT). The network uses these adjectives to describe the show and its characters: wicked, beautiful, dangerous, heroic, possessive, hot-to-trot, mysterious, charismatic. And the central character is "the daughter of the devil." The first part of the premiere airs on this date, then moves to its regular 9 p.m. Thursday spot the next night with Part 2.
Jan. 23: Numb3rs (10, WFTS). Rob Morrow is the FBI guy, David Krumholtz is his math-geek brother, and they solve cases with numbers the way Gil Grissom does it with DNA on CSI. Peter MacNicol (Ally McBeal), Judd Hirsch (Taxi) and Sabrina Lloyd (Sports Night) also star. The show moves to its regular Fridays-at-10 slot Jan. 28.
Jan. 26: The Simple Life: Interns (8:30, WTVT).