Humility at the New York upfront

NBC gloats, ABC retools, CBS coasts, Fox goes year-round

Anyone who attended the New York upfront presentations a few weeks ago witnessed a rare bout of network humility – almost no-one was touting their number-one position in the market. The truth is, some networks (i.e. WB and ABC) had such lousy years that they didn’t bother talking about numbers at all.

But modesty stopped at the doors of NBC. That net reminded everyone, ad nauseum, that according to their numbers, they are number one everywhere with everyone. They are even the number-one network for NBC programs. (That insight coming courtesy of Conan O’Brien, who was the high point of their presentation.)

A strong emphasis was placed on freshening up programming year-round as a way to combat audience erosion. Fox pioneered the move years ago with its August debuts, and CBS’s Survivor proved without a doubt that people would watch television in the summer if they had a compelling reason to do so. This year, Fox will go one step farther, transforming its schedule three times throughout the year, leaning heavily on unscripted short-order series and drama.

Another recurring theme was comparing broadcast (conventional) to cable (specialty). This is now a hot topic in the U.S., and in various ways, the networks used the upfronts to sell the benefits of broadcast as a group over cable.

The stars were out in full support, and no one was more visible than Mark Burnett. Is there a network without a Mark Burnett show? The Apprentice will be back (twice on NBC), and then there’s Survivor (CBS), The Contender (NBC), The Casino (Fox) and Commando Nanny (WB).

Other unscripted creations include Sir Richard Branson’s The Billionaire and copycats like The Contender on NBC versus The Next Great Champ on Fox. CBS is the lightest of the networks in unscripted, with more of a focus on dramas. Sitcoms are way down at just 36 versus 50 last fall.

NBC

Will new dramas find Friends?

NBC presented a long, less-impressive-than-usual upfront at Radio City Music Hall. Curiously, the stars were shown on the big screen from their seats rather than appearing on stage, reducing their impact and presence.

On Mondays at 10 p.m., Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood star in airport drama LAX, a good fit with Las Vegas as its lead-in. Father of the Pride (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) is an animated comedy à la Shrek about the animals performing in the Siegfried and Roy show, although it didn’t make as much sense as it would have if S&R were still performing in Las Vegas.

At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, NBC airs Hawaii, an intense police drama better suited for a 10 p.m. time-slot. However, with loads of crime and medical dramas, NBC has a crowded 10 o’clock slot to work with. For Fridays at that time, NBC presented Medical Investigation, the first of many medical dramas we were to see throughout the week.

Then in an unusual move, NBC screened the full pilot of Joey, possibly as a way to emphasize its importance or to address advertiser skepticism. The consensus was that it ‘wasn’t as bad as expected,’ so NBC may have achieved its objective.

The aforementioned Contender is to occupy the Average Joe time-slot on Tuesdays at 8 o’clock come January. It has the backing of some heavy hitters: Dreamworks, Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard. NBC has a number of mid-season replacements ready to go including the fourth iteration of the Law & Order franchise: Law & Order: Trial by Jury with Jerry Orbach.

ABC

Bachelors, benefactors and savages

ABC’s prime-time schedule was presented by Stephen McPherson, (president of ABC Primetime Entertainment) who has been on the job for barely a month. ABC has had a tumultuous year both in ratings and in the executive suite, and as a result every night of the week (except Saturday with Disney) is changing.

Of all the networks, ABC has the heaviest dose of unscripted programming as it struggles to break out of fourth place. Needless to say, we didn’t see any bar charts highlighting performance here, but ABC did use the opportunity to promote broadcast over cable.

The Benefactor, featuring Internet millionaire Mark Cuban, starts the week. Newcomer comic Rodney Carrington stars in a Tuesday sitcom based on his life. NYPD limps in at 10 o’clock on Tuesday for its final season, to be replaced by Steven Bochco’s police drama Blind Justice at its completion.

On Wednesdays, The Bachelor (9 p.m.) is bookended by two new shows. Starting the night is Lost from Alias producer J.J. Abrams, about a group marooned on an island after a plane crash. Rounding out the night is Wife Swap – an unscripted show in which two wives trade places for two weeks and bring their own household rules and ideas to their new families.

Eight Simple Rules has moved to Friday, leading into Savages, a sitcom from Mel Gibson about a widower with five sons. At 9 p.m. on Sunday, the soapy drama Desperate Housewives has a great cast with Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Nicholette Sheridan, and Marcia Cross as suburban housewives whose lives are not as perfect as they seem. The Practice: Fleet Street starring James Spader and William Shatner will inherit its predecessor’s 10 p.m. slot. Alias returns in January with only new episodes running through June. (We’ll see if Stephen McPherson lasts that long.)

CBS

Riding High

CBS is coming off a terrific year and it showed with one of the best upfronts of the week at Carnegie Hall. CBS opened with the ‘Fab Four’ cover band poking fun at their rivals via reworked Beatles songs, and proceeded to present a comparatively stable schedule with more returning shows than the competition and only five new ones. The surprise performance at the end by The Who sent everyone out on a high note.

CBS has added Listen Up to its Monday night sitcom lineup. Starring Jason Alexander as an ESPN sportswriter, Listen Up is a compatible fit with Still Standing, Everybody Loves Raymond and Two & A Half Men. CSI: Miami rounds out the night.

Hitting screens on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m., Clubhouse is about a 16-year old and his dream job as a bat boy for a New York major league baseball team. The writing and cast (Dean Cain, Mare Winningham) are strong, but the flow felt odd between NCIS and Judging Amy. Center of the Universe is CBS’ highest-testing new show. This family comedy with the all-star cast (John Goodman, Jean Smart, Ed Asner and Olympia Dukakis) is a perfect companion to its King of Queens lead-in on Wednesday. The most talked about pilot, CSI: New York, follows at 10 p.m. after a spectacular spin-off introduction on CSI: Miami on May 17. Up against Law & Order, my money’s on CSI: NY.

Finally on Fridays, Rob Lowe stars as an in-house casino doctor in Dr. Vegas at 10 p.m. Let’s just say he never should have left The West Wing. CBS is also attempting to gain younger viewers on Saturday night with 48 Hours Mystery (a themed version of 48 Hours), The Amazing Race and, at 10 o’clock, ‘Crimetime Saturday’ with repeats from the CSIs, Without a Trace and Cold Case. We’ll call it the Jerry Bruckheimer hour.

FOX

As reality as it gets

Fox opened its show with American Idol’s Ruben, Clay, Fantasia and Diana (the latter two via satellite from L.A. where they were rehearsing for the big duel). Fox proceeded to lay out in great detail three schedules promoting its year-round strategy. The first schedule runs June through September, a break takes place in October for major league baseball playoffs, followed by the November-to-January schedule, then January through June. I’ll stick to the highlights.

On Mondays, Mark Burnett’s The Casino debuts June 14, followed by the return of The Swan in November. 24 returns in January, running all episodes without interruption.

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin airlines fame – the British Donald Trump – now has his own unscripted entry The Billionaire, starting in November. Participants compete for the chance to be part of Branson’s world. Think The Apprentice meets The Amazing Race. Fox’s medical drama House is about a brilliant doctor with a gift for diagnosing difficult cases. American Idol returns in January.

The O.C. is currently slated for a November start on Thursdays at 8 p.m., up against Survivor, Joey and The Mountain in probably the most competitive time-slot of the week. Expect someone to move before September.

On Fridays at 8 p.m., Oscar de la Hoya has teamed with Fox for the boxing short series The Next Great Champ starting in November. Then, in a compatible pairing starting in January, Fox has two cop dramas: The Inside about a female undercover cop passing as a high school student, and Jonny Zero, starring Frankie G from The Italian Job as an ex-con turned private eye.

Sunday has a number of new shows and the announcement of the return of Arrested Development brought cheers. Fox brings us Kelsey Grammer Presents: The Sketch Show, with Malcolm moving to 7:30 p.m. in the fall and then to 8:30 p.m. in January. The Partner pits two groups of lawyers against each other in a competition to earn a position in a prestigious law firm. Last, but not least, American Dad, a new animated series, has been given the coveted position of debuting after the Super Bowl.

So, it was quite a week – lots of drama and lots of unscripted, but you’ll be disappointed next fall if you’re looking for a lot of laughs.

Janice Fish is media manager at OMD in Toronto. She can be reached at: Janice.Fish@omd.com.