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Prime time's new season

With five hours of drama ditched for Jay Leno each week, TV insiders see a larger recalibration afoot.

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On the dramatic side, Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth are a disgraced political couple in CBS's "The Good Wife," and movie names Chris O'Donnell and Joseph Fiennes bring extra wattage to the CBS spinoff "NCIS: Los Angeles" and ABC's mysterious serial about a worldwide effort to understand a 2-1/2-minute global glimpse into the future of the planet, "Flash Forward," respectively.

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"The networks are in a scramble to reinforce their traditional identities," says K.P. Anderson, executive producer of "The Soup." Remakes (The CW's "Melrose Place") and spinoffs ("NCIS: L.A"; Fox's "Family Guy" offspring, "The Cleveland Show") further reinforce the conservative approach to programming evident across the list, he adds.

But as other networks burnish their traditional assets, one network, NBC, has launched what some have called the most radical redefinition of prime time since the dawn of the TV prime-time schedule a half century ago. The entire industry has been tightening its belt over the past year, but none so much as NBC-Universal, which cut some $500 million. Its most visible and dramatic cost-cutting strategy, however, has been to pull all scripted dramas from the 10 p.m. prime-time slot and replace them, five nights a week, with a new comedy hour hosted by Jay Leno. "It was time to try something else," says the former "Tonight Show" host. "NBC tried scripted programming at 10 o'clock – "Lipstick Jungle," "Kidnapped," "My Own Worst Enemy." Hugely expensive shows. I thought they were OK, but for some reason, they didn't catch on. So now you try something different."

The move has led to much hand-wringing in the creative community and beyond. The 10 p.m. slot, notes writer Peter Tolan, was traditionally the home of many of television's finest dramas. "There was a level, a quality of work, and an elegance of work that NBC was known for. And I don't think, unless I'm wrong, that this will approach it."