Networks Go Back to Basics; Reality Programs Scaled Back as Fall Schedule Is Readied

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Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Summer's nearly over, and it's time for the networks to put away their reality toys.

Reality television won't disappear entirely from the television landscape now that fall is upon us. But the networks are hoping their throwback approach - scripts, actors and other antiquated techniques - will entice viewers in the weeks to come.

If not, plenty of mid-season reality shows are probably being cooked up at this very moment.

At ABC, fall means four new sitcoms and three new dramas arriving to reinforce its low-rated schedule.

The most promising sitcom, if name recognition counts for anything, is "Hope & Faith" (Friday, 9 p.m.). Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford star as two very different sisters - Miss Ripa plays a soap opera diva, while Miss Ford is a stay-at-home mom. When Miss Ripa's alter ego gets written out of the show, the actress moves in with Miss Ford.

The network's "Karen Sisco" (Wednesday, 10 p.m.) takes Jennifer Lopez's character from the 1998 cult film "Out of Sight" and fleshes out her life as a U.S. marshal in South Beach The show features solid support from veterans Bill Duke (1997's " Hoodlum") and Robert Forster (1997's "Jackie Brown").

"Threat Matrix" (Thursday, 8 p.m.) is a fictionalized spinoff from the Homeland Security Agency fight against al Qaeda and other terrorist threats.

Should any of these series falter, the network has mid-season replacements "Line of Fire" and "Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital" ready in the wings.

The network hasn't forsaken reality programming. Expect a new "Bachelor" (Wednesday, 9 p.m.), featuring funny fella Bob Guiney from "The Bachelorette," plus a series of shows following the wedding of "Bachelorette" Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter, whom she met on the show.

The Peacock network is counting on a passel of familiar names to keep its ratings afloat, including Whoopi Goldberg, John Larroquette, Rob Lowe, James Caan and Ryan O'Neal.

NBC's once-potent "must see" Thursday lineup faces a crucial test this season. "Friends" is in its final season, and the network's new "Coupling" sitcom (Thursday, 9:30 p.m.), inspired by the saucy British comedy, could be too sexy for American sensibilities.

Elsewhere on NBC, "The West Wing" soldiers on without creator Aaron Sorkin (Wednesday, 9 p.m.). Can the aging series, a fictionalized account of an honest Democratic presidency, survive without Mr. Sorkin's gift for sharp dialogue? Mr. Sorkin is one of the few TV talents whose stamp on a show is unmistakable. He won't be easily replaced.

The biggest additions to NBC are "Las Vegas" (Monday, 9 p.m.), starring Mr. Caan, "Whoopi" (Tuesday, 8 p.m.), "The Lyon's Den" (Sunday, 10 p.m.) with Mr. Lowe and "Miss Match" (Friday, 8 p.m.), starring Alicia Silverstone and Mr. O'Neal.

With five new dramas and two new comedies, CBS counters with some high-profile names of its own, including Joe Pantoliano ("The Sopranos"), Charlie Sheen and Mary Steenburgen. Even bigger names are behind its new shows, including producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Bad Boys 2") and David E. Kelley ("The Practice").

Mr. Bruckheimer's "Cold Case" (Sunday, 8 p.m.) finds "Minority Report" 's Kathryn Morris solving long dormant crimes using modern technology and fresh interviews.

"Two and a Half Men" (Monday, 9:30 p.m.) finds Mr. Sheen and Jon Cryer sharing parental responsibilities for Mr. Cryer's son, while Mr. Kelley's "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." (Wednesday, 10 p.m.) follows a trio of brothers getting by in small town America.

Fox, ever the maverick network, jumped the gun on fall '03 by releasing "O.C." last month (moving to Thursday, 9 p.m.). The new weekly soap features yet another young, handsome cast. The setting this time: idyllic Orange County, Calif.

Mr. Bruckheimer has a hand in "Skin" (Monday, 9 p. …