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The WB tries a programming shuffle to save ''Felicity''

”Jack & Jill” and the Keri Russell drama pair off in a final attempt to boost ratings

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Isabella Vosmikova

Wednesday nights may be a little confusing at the WB network this fall. Instead of canceling low rated shows like ”Felicity” and ”Jack & Jill,” the network has decided to let the two share the same 9 p.m. time slot following ”Dawson’s Creek.” Starting Oct. 4, ”Felicity” will air for 11 weeks, to be followed by 13 weeks of ”Jack & Jill,” then another 11 weeks of ”Felicity.” Confused? You’re not alone. ”I don’t really understand what’s going on,” sighs ”Jack” star Amanda Peet. ”It seems a little weird.”

A little weirdness may be better than more of the same old thing, considering that the foundering network slipped behind UPN in the ratings last season. The home of cartoon huckster Michigan J. Frog seems to have very little to lose: Even the network’s most successful shows, ”7th Heaven” (ranked 108th) and ”Angel” (118th) are hardly blockbusters, and ”Felicity” lost a third of its viewers last season after moving to Sunday nights, dropping from 124 to 132. Newcomer ”Jack & Jill,” a romantic comedy, languished at No. 139.

”This is an expensive move, but a very clever one,” says Mediaweek TV analyst Marc Berman, who notes that running both shows means fewer reruns and lower production costs. And the payoff could be two modest hits. ”The shows have very similar audience compositions, and with ‘Jack & Jill’ running in the middle, ‘Felicity’ can drum up excitement for its next run of episodes by ending with a cliffhanger. While people are waiting in anticipation of the outcome of that, they can discover ‘Jack & Jill.”’

Show rotation has already worked well for HBO, which created buzz for the hot weather hit ”Sex and the City” by running it in the same time slot as ”The Sopranos,” which aired during the fall and winter. It may also be a boon for young stars of the two WB series. ”Will this give me more time for features? I hope so,” Peet admits. Peet’s appearance in ”The Whole Nine Yards” didn’t boost ”Jack”’s ratings last year, but her role opposite Jason Biggs in ”Saving Silverman” (due in theaters Feb. 16) — a comedy targeted towards a younger audience — may do the trick.

Though ”Felicity” has been steadily losing viewers since debuting in 77th place in 1998, this fall may be the perfect time for a comeback. The show’s producers just recruited John Ritter to guest star as the father of Scott Speedman’s character, Ben, and there’s another important addition to the show this season — more hair. ”As silly as it sounds, Keri Russell’s haircut did make a difference to viewers last season,” says Berman. ”It turned people off.” Escaping from a deadly Sunday time slot could also bring back fans who dropped the show following its move from Tuesday nights. And if the time share scheme doesn’t pull both shows out of the ratings basement? ”This is their one last shot at finding an audience,” says Berman. At least Keri Russell will have some hair to pull out if the ax falls.