Upfront in New York

Once again, four days in mid May bore witness to the U.S. network upfronts, providing the first glimpse at the new shows for the 2002/03 television season.
In 2002/03 we will be watching more dramas (21 new entries vs. 16 last year), more family sitcoms, no game shows (good bye Regis and Anne), and fewer new unscripted shows (but fresh versions of Survivor, Fear Factor and The Bachelor).

Once again, four days in mid May bore witness to the U.S. network upfronts, providing the first glimpse at the new shows for the 2002/03 television season.

In 2002/03 we will be watching more dramas (21 new entries vs. 16 last year), more family sitcoms, no game shows (good bye Regis and Anne), and fewer new unscripted shows (but fresh versions of Survivor, Fear Factor and The Bachelor).

In total, 39 shows were unveiled, covering 29 hours of primetime. This is an increase of four shows over last year and, of course, most of these will not see 2003/04. Of the new shows, there were few clear standouts (the exception being CSI: Miami).

A focus on law enforcement and feel-good nostalgia are this year’s overwhelming themes, with an abundance of cop shows and programs set in the innocence of the ’60s, remakes of old shows and close to a dozen new family sitcoms. Clearly, this is what the U.S. networks perceive as the mood of the nation in post-Sept. 11 America. As well, this past season’s well-received retrospective specials on Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball helped set the stage.

Also of note is that many networks have foregone the conventional scheduling of proven performers in the 8 p.m. time slot to anchor the hour, with the new entries following. In several instances, the rookie shows will lead off the night – a riskier move. The Canadian broadcasters will follow suit where possible to maintain their simulcast positions.

NBC

Despite laying claim to last year’s biggest stinker (Emeril), and the disappointing performance of two hours of The Weakest Link, NBC is coming off a strong 2001/02 season, proudly touting their dominant performance and stability.

As a result, they unveiled a low-risk schedule with very few changes and only three and a half hours of new programming. Notable slot changes include Just Shoot Me, moving to Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m., and Scrubs, which has been given the coveted post-Friends position on Thursday – marking it as the potential heir apparent to replace the departing Friends at the end of next season.

New shows include three sitcoms and two dramas. In-Laws (Tuesdays at 8 p.m.) stars an over-acting Dennis Farina and Jean Smart as parents who take their newly married daughter and son-in-law under their roof. Hidden Hills (Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.) is a comedy centring on two couples in the suburbs, and Good Morning Miami (a workplace comedy about a TV producer trying to rescue a low-rated morning show, by the creators of Will & Grace) gets the Thursday time slot vacated by Just Shoot Me. (For complete descriptions of all new shows, see page TV37.)

Sunday continues to be the most challenging night for NBC, although the network found some success with last season’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Leading the night is the family drama American Dreams, a sentimental series set in Philadelphia in the ’60s centring on two teenage girls longing to be dancers on American Bandstand. Produced by Dick Clark (who else?), the pilot nostalgically mixes original Bandstand footage into the storyline.

At 10 p.m., NBC will slot Boomtown, which provided the New York upfront crowd with a look at the first of many new crime dramas. Set in Los Angeles and starring Donnie Wahlberg and Mykelti Williamson, each week’s episode will focus on one crime as seen from several viewpoints – from cops and paramedics to prosecutors and reporters. A nice fit with the Law & Order: Criminal Intent lead-in.

Earning the biggest buzz of the week was Kingpin, an edgy drama about the Drug Enforcement Agency’s attempt to bring down a family-run drug cartel. Think Traffic. However, it will be on the shelf until mid-season – perhaps NBC felt America hadn’t sufficiently recovered from the shock of last September to embrace this riskier entry.

ABC

It was almost embarrassing to hear ABC executives plead for patience as they attempt to rebuild and recover from a dreadful 2001/02 season. After a season of too many program changes and cancellations, ABC claims that they will keep shows in their time periods and give them a chance to grow, in an effort to reverse their downward trend.

The heavily revamped schedule includes slot changes for The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which move to Monday night prior to football, and According to Jim, now on Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. Regis is gone from the prime-time schedule, as well as two long-running comedies: Spin City and Dharma & Greg. Also of note, ABC has dumped Politically Incorrect after host Bill Maher ruffled feathers once too often.

Three of ABC’s seven new shows are scheduled for Tuesday. The lead-in for the night, which was well received by the New York ad crowd, is 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter, starring John Ritter as the over-protective dad of two teenage girls.

At 9 and 9:30 p.m. are two family/workplace comedies: Life with Bonnie (starring Bonnie Hunt) and Less Than Perfect.

ABC dramas include Wednesday’s Meds, a medical drama set in San Francisco, and That Was Then, which received a lot of notice from the upfront audience. Unfortunately for ABC, though, it received that attention only because That Was Then is almost identical to Do Over, a WB sitcom presented earlier in the day. In both, a 30-year-old underachieving guy time-travels back to high school for a chance to do it over.

With hopes of attracting kids and their parents, Dinotopia anchors Thursday night for ABC, based on the recent fantasy miniseries.

One of the more unique concepts presented over the week was Push, Nevada (from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), where viewers will follow the clues each week as an IRS agent’s search for missing money leads him to a small town rife with mystery. The interactive twist is that the viewer who successfully puts the evidence together can actually win the money.

Key to ABC’s recovery strategy is the new ‘ABC Happy Hour,’ which will offer a block of family-friendly shows in the 8 to 9 p.m. time slot. If their promise to give shows a chance holds true, ABC may indeed have a chance to recover.

CBS

CBS has momentum coming off a strong year, and has narrowed the gap with number one-ranked NBC. Since the phenomenal success of the first Survivor series, CBS has continued to attract younger and more affluent viewers – every programmer and network president’s dream.

Weeknights at 10 p.m. were identified as a scheduling priority for the network, and of the seven new shows, four fall in that time period.

One of the most anticipated new shows of the 2002/03 season is CSI: Miami, starring David Caruso. This spin-off, set up in an episode of the original CSI earlier this May, is scheduled on Mondays at 10 p.m., giving added strength and younger viewers to the time slot previously held by Family Law – it should give NBC’s Crossing Jordan a run for its money.

CBS’s version of an L.A.-based crime show is RHD/LA, its Friday 10 p.m. drama about the LAPD’s Robbery and Homicide Division. The compatible lead-in is Hack, another crime drama, whose lead character is an ex-cop turned taxi driver.

On Wednesday, Presidio Med, set in a San Francisco hospital and starring Dana Delany and Blythe Danner, will compete directly with ABC’s Meds. Both may need medical assistance running up against Law & Order on NBC.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI, The Amazing Race) gets a fourth hour on the network with Without a Trace, a missing persons drama with Anthony LaPaglia as the head of an FBI task force. For non-ER fans, it provides a compatible lead-out from CSI.

CBS’ best available comedy spot, following Everybody Loves Raymond on Monday night, goes to Still Standing, starring Jami Gertz (Twister) and Mark Addy (The Full Monty). It’s about a blue-collar couple and their three children set in Chicago. On Sunday at 8 p.m., CBS has Bram and Alice, a comedy about a famous, womanizing novelist and the daughter he never knew he had.

With more drama hours than any other network, and only two nights intact from last season, CBS may widen the gap with NBC.

FOX

The Fox schedule features 10 new entries – more than any other network, and to keep that in perspective, Fox airs seven fewer hours of primetime per week than the big three.

Fox took some big hits this year with dramatic declines for two long-running favourites – Ally McBeal and The X-Files – so it’s revamping half its schedule. Only Saturday (with Cops and America’s Most Wanted) is intact.

David E. Kelly keeps his Monday 9 p.m. timeslot, replacing the departed Ally McBeal with Girl’s Club. This time a trio of young female attorneys are sharing a San Francisco loft. Other dramas include Fastlane (an L.A.-based police drama); Firefly, (a futuristic drama); and John Doe (about a mysterious man who knows everything – except his own identity). There’s also a teen soap, Septuplets, about septuplets (no kidding) who operate an upscale hotel in Southern California.

Comedies have long dominated Fox’s Sunday schedule, and with the demise of The X-Files, the network now plans three full hours of comedy. New entries include Oliver Beene (an adult Oliver recalls growing up in the 1960s), and The Grubbs (starring Randy Quaid) at 9:30 following Malcolm in the Middle in its new 9 p.m. time slot. Don’t some of the younger kids who enjoy Malcolm go to bed earlier than that on a school night?

Fox’s biggest hit of the 2001/02 season, The Bernie Mac Show, provides the launch pad for Cedric the Entertainer Presents, a sketch-comedy series. Fox also sets itself apart as the only network offering new unscripted series with Meet the Marks, a hidden-camera show featuring a troupe of improvisational actors, and 30 Seconds to Fame, a talent competition.

So there it is. If you like cop shows, you’ll have plenty to choose from – if looking back is your thing, the networks hope to entertain you. If not, the networks might want the chance for a ‘do over’ too.

Janice Fish recently moved to PJDDB/OMD Canada in Toronto, where she is media manager. She can be reached at: Janice.Fish@pjddb.com.