Report from New York

It's hard to believe that at this time last year 'unscripted' and 'reality' were not widely known parts of the TV lexicon. Not only has Survivor spun a whole new TV genre, but for the first time in more than 10...

It’s hard to believe that at this time last year ‘unscripted’ and ‘reality’ were not widely known parts of the TV lexicon. Not only has Survivor spun a whole new TV genre, but for the first time in more than 10 years, a major U.S. network challenged NBC’s ‘Must-See Thursday’ lineup – and did so with considerable success.

Based on the performance of Survivor, coupled with the threat of writers’ and actors’ strikes earlier this spring, it is not surprising that the U.S. networks are heading into the 2001/02 broadcast season with 10% of the prime-time schedules in unscripted/reality programming. We can anticipate Survivor 3, Survivor 4, Temptation Island 2, The Mole 2, Weakest Link, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Popstars 2, as well as new entries Elimidate Deluxe, The Amazing Race, Lost in the U.S.A., The Runner and No Boundaries.

In total, 35 shows were unveiled at New York’s upfront presentations in May – the first glimpse of the new fall season – covering 25 of the 104 total prime-time hours, which is about the same as last year. Of course, most will not survive.

WB and CBS lead the pack with nine and eight new shows respectively. ABC and Fox presented five each, and NBC has six. There are an equal number of dramas and comedies: the dramas primarily have lawyer and special agent themes; the comedies are more family focused.

NBC

With few holes to fill in its prime-time schedule, NBC presented a low-risk strategy that was the least creative, with multiple offerings of Weakest Link, Dateline, and the Law & Order franchise. Of note is the fact that the NBC schedule has only eight sitcoms – the fewest for NBC since the early ’80s.

NBC execs declared they were ‘breaking the rules’ this year, but that seems to mean little beyond running 40-minute episodes of Friends. The net has six new shows, which will mean heavily revamping Monday, Tuesday and Sunday, yet it’s offering stability on the other nights.

The upfront’s most questionable placement belongs to NBC’s Emeril in the important 8 p.m. leadoff position on Tuesdays. Emeril Lagasse stars as a chef in this behind-the-scenes look at his own cable cooking show. He’s an accomplished chef no doubt, but is he an actor? (For a more detailed look at the fall debuts, see ‘The Shows’ on page TV35.)

The new hospital drama Scrubs is positioned to follow Frasier on Tuesdays, pretty much guaranteeing success to this group of interns. The clips were promising, and created a buzz in the audience. The other prime NBC real estate – Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. – is awarded to Inside Schwartz, about a would-be TV sportscaster whose thoughts and fantasies are revealed in conversations with real-life sports figures.

NBC dramas are all crime-related, with Crossing Jordan starring Jill Hennessey as a medical examiner, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, telling the stories from the criminal’s point of view, and Undercover about an elite justice department unit. As well, after 30 years, NBC has dropped its Sunday movie.

ABC

ABC is launching five new shows this fall, the fewest of the big four networks. Three new dramas, two new comedies, and all four mid-season replacement shows have found permanent homes on the schedule. After a disappointing season, Who Wants to be a Millionaire is being reduced to two nights a week from four, and one of these nights will be themed.

The biggest news is that 20/20 is being booted out of its Friday time-slot (after 14 years!) to make way for Once and Again. ABC execs have until December 2002 to smooth things over with Barbara Walters. Once and Again will start the season on Friday at 10 p.m. and 20/20 will move to Wednesdays at 10 until NYPD Blue joins the schedule in late fall. At that point, 20/20 will be shelved for a number of weeks, until The Mole 2 (Fridays at 8 p.m.) wraps up. Then, the Friday 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. dramas (Thieves and Once and Again) move up an hour, making way for 20/20 to return to 10 p.m. Got that?

As for the new ABC entries, the dramas are: Steven Bochco’s Philly (starring Kim Delaney as a tough defense attorney); Thieves (with John Stamos in a spy thriller à la Remington Steele); and from the creator of Felicity comes Alias, with Jennifer Garner (Pearl Harbor) as a college student who moonlights as a special agent for the CIA. One of the most promising clips of the week came from Bob Patterson, in which Jason Alexander stars as a motivational speaker and author whose own life is in a shambles. Disappointingly, last week it was reported that the pilot is being re-tooled – never a good sign. Lastly, The Dad stars Courtney Thorne-Smith and Jim Belushi in a family sitcom.

CBS

CBS is riding high, coming off its best year in recent memory, and narrowing the gap for this season’s ratings race. Fittingly, their presentation launched with Gloria Gaynor belting out her ’70s hit I will Survive, followed by a proud-as-a-peacock Les Moonves, president of CBS.

Due to the success of Survivor, the CBS audience has gotten younger and more affluent – every network’s dream. CBS has cancelled some long-running staples (Nash Bridges, Walker Texas Ranger, Diagnosis: Murder) in an effort to further draw younger viewers.

Eight new shows will be introduced for the fall season, leaving only Monday night intact. Of note, CBS is returning four shows to the schedule for their sophomore season, more than any other network. As well, in a calculated scheduling move, CBS is moving 48 Hours to Fridays at 10 p.m. to cater to the audience missing 20/20 on ABC. Of the five new dramas, the one with the highest profile stars Oscar winners Richard Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden as professors at a private school in The Education of Max Bickford.

Wednesday is totally re-tooled with 60 Minutes II, the unscripted The Amazing Race (Survivor on speed, as described by Mr. Moonves) at 9, followed by Wolf Lake, starring Lou Diamond Phillips in a sci-fi drama. A questionable flow.

CBS has proven that Thursday is no longer a scary place, and will provide 28 original hours of programming at 8 p.m. with Survivor 3 in the fall, and Survivor 4 in the winter. The only new comedies on the CBS roster are The Ellen Show (yes, Ellen DeGeneres is back) and American Wreck starring Daniel Stern. The established Touched by an Angel moves to Saturday from its long-standing Sunday time-slot. I’m guessing Della Reece and Roma Downey are commiserating with Barbara Walters.

Fox

Fox presented five new shows and the heaviest comedy lineup of all networks, with 12. There are two survivors from Fox’s nine entries last fall, and Monday, Saturday and Sunday are intact from last season.

Two of Fox’s five new entries are on Tuesday: the half-hour Undeclared, about college freshmen following That ’70s Show, and 24, an interesting concept starring Kiefer Sutherland as a special agent investigating an attempt on the life of a presidential candidate. This whodunit is told in real time, and will unfold over 24 episodes. Fox, unwilling to go head-to-head with Survivor at 8, has scheduled its unscripted hit Temptation Island 2 to air at 9 p.m. on Thursdays. But you have to be patient – the Fox premieres will be delayed due to post-season major league baseball.

WB

Although it lost teens in the 2000/01 season, WB gained 18- to 34-year-old viewers by adding comedies to offset its heavy teen drama schedule.

The net is hoping to recreate ABC’s TGIF success by slotting eight comedies on Sunday and Friday nights. Friday night starts with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, followed by three new family sitcoms. Maybe I’m Adopted features Fred Willard and Julia Sweeney as parents, Deep in the Heart trots out Reba McEntire as a soon-to-be-single mom in Texas, and Raising Dad marks the return of Bob Saget to network TV. Sunday’s new entries are ‘single guy comedies’ Men, Women and Dogs and Off-Centre, both sandwiched between established shows.

Heavy in the unscripted genre, WB will bring us Popstars 2 and start the season with Elimidate Deluxe (don’t ask) and Lost in the U.S.A. (four teens on a cross-country scavenger hunt from the makers of Road Rules). After Lost finishes its run, No Boundaries (a wilderness race from Washington to Alaska) will replace it.

UPN

Known primarily for its minority sitcoms, and not of big significance here in Canada, the biggest emphasis at the UPN presentation was on snatching up Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell from WB (encompassing the Tuesday night lineup), and the introduction of the latest Star Trek series (actually a prequel) Enterprise starring Scott Bakula. The other new show for UPN is a family sitcom, One on One, about a sportscaster dad and his preteen daughter.

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Janice Fish (jfish@tnmedia.fcb.ca) is group broadcast manager at Toronto-based TN Media.