NBC, the largest of America's big four television networks, threw the programming cat among the pigeons when it announced Friday it would commence its fall schedules immediately after completing coverage of the Athens Olympic Games on August 29.

Traditionally, the programming seasons are determined by TV audience measurement supremo Nielsen Media Research which specifies when the fall and spring seasons start and end.

The broadcaster's decision to anticipate the starting gun for Nielsen's official fall period, usually the third week of September, could undermine (and is probably intended to) the time-honored concept of a set season where networks compete for a notional ratings championship.

Says NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker: "We're clearly in a changing environment in television where we've moved to this 52-week-a-year programming. Just as we can't be beholden to the actual calendar, we can't be beholden to the Nielsen calendar either."

NBC's carry-over series have already been told to start preproduction early so episodes will be ready. It is not up to him, Zucker said to "pronounce that the fall TV season as we know it is dead". But, he emphasized, "we're in a time in television where very few of the old rules apply".

Nor does Zucker intend to adhere to the season's 'official' end in May as determined by Nielsen. NBC's new series will ring down the curtain in April.

Fall 2004 will see the broadcaster face its most testing season in a decade, having decided to drop its erstwhile ratings blockbusters Friends and Frasier. The former will end its run on May 6, the latter a week later.

Fox network is also in earlybird mode, intending to introduce a raft of new series, perhaps as early as June in a bid to avoid the logjam of new programming traditionally launched in September.

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff