New York: The celebrity carnival

The big four U.S. networks alternately bored (FOX), underwhelmed (NBC) and entertained (CBS, ABC) audiences at this year's U.S. TV screenings. But there was very little buzz and no palpable hits emerged.

The big four U.S. networks alternately bored (FOX), underwhelmed (NBC) and entertained (CBS, ABC) audiences at this year’s U.S. TV screenings. But there was very little buzz and no palpable hits emerged.

A few notable themes: Sitcoms are back, primarily due to the success of last year’s Everybody Hates Chris and My Name is Earl. There were many numbers in titles – (maybe they think this appeals to media buyers?). Reality or ‘alternative’ programming keeps on ticking. And the dreaded

‘d’ word kept popping up. As if working off the same script, all the nets spoke about embracing digital media, with TV that is on the the go in the form of mobisodes, webisodes and other platforms where viewers can connect. We media buyers, however, are still waiting to see the value to advertisers. It will come, but for now all the talk seems overblown. Meanwhile, on to the shows.

NBC

NBC, in fourth place, has six new dramas. Kidnapped, with Timothy Hutton and Dana Delaney as the parents of a kidnapped boy, was strong. Each intense episode covers one day, but it faces House on Tuesday which could be problematic. Friday Night Lights is a likeable drama about a small Texas town’s heroic football team. The Black Donnellys, a highly anticipated drama about an Irish family and organized crime, is from Paul Haggis of Crash fame. It replaces ER when it goes on hiatus. Despite its pedigree, it didn’t jump out as something special; mind you, those who have seen the entire pilot say otherwise.

Raines, which stars Jeff Goldblum as a quirky detective who sees dead people, has potential. The same can’t be said for Heroes, a slightly hokey show about ordinary people who develop super powers. It isn’t likely to survive.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, from West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, features a behind-the-scenes TV show and stars many familiar faces including Steven Weber and Matthew Perry, but the net’s expectations may be too high given the night’s competition, in the form of CSI and Grey’s Anatomy, no less.

In sitcoms: 30 Rock, with Alec Baldwin as a nasty programming exec, was laugh-out-loud. Twenty Good Years has John Lithgow playing…John Lithgow. There were a few funny moments, but it’s far too predictable.

With game shows hot again, most nets trotted out their offerings. At NBC, there’s America’s Got Talent with Regis Philbin and Treasure Hunters from Ron Howard and Brian Glazer. No clips were available, but Philbin’s big following should guarantee some success. As for Treasure Hunters, it’s neat and has a Da Vinci Code vibe, but how long can you milk that?

ABC

The highlight of this presentation? William Shatner in tails singing ‘Beautiful Boys’ with a parade of ABC’s leading men was a big hit.

The net has several comedies. In Case of Emergency with Jonathan Silverman and David Arquette is about a not-so-funny accidental high school reunion and is not so memorable. Big Day is a funny, slapstick view of a wedding day (looking at all the events leading up to the big day) and is slated for Thursdays up against Survivor and My Name is Earl, so likely won’t survive. Help Me Help You features group therapy for laughs with Ted Danson. It’s a traditional sitcom with a popular TV star, so has possibilities. Let’s Rob… is about losers who decide to rob Mick Jagger’s apartment. (Mick, the original bad boy, how could you – a sitcom!!) It’s goofy and silly…and frankly, I liked it!

Notes From the Underbelly is about a self-centred couple having a baby – who cares? Betty the Ugly, produced by Salma Hayek, is a look at the ugly side of the fashion business and has potential. Meanwhile, Men in Trees stars Anne Heche as a relationship coach helping bachelors in Alaska. There wasn’t enough shown to decide either way.

There were positive vibes for The Nine, a story of nine hostages interacting after a bank holdup. Calista Flockhart is back in the family drama Brothers & Sisters, which landed a plum spot following Desperate Housewives and feels like déjà vu. Day Break is about a detective who has to relive the same bad day over and over – I know the feeling – while Six Degrees is about six people interacting in NYC but who aren’t very interesting.

Other offerings include game show Master of Champions where contestants perform in outrageous competitions, and reality show One Ocean View. Again, no clips were shown.

CBS

CBS, at number one, has the most stable schedule with only a few holes to plug. The Class, a sitcom about a group of singles who last saw each other in Grade 3, received polite applause.

Smith stars Ray Liotta as a ‘burbs kind of guy who actually heads up a team of professional thieves. It looks promising but faces tough competition from Law & Order and Boston Legal.

Jericho is sci-fi about paranoia in a Kansas town, but this genre has a high failure rate. A highlight was James Woods in Shark, about a cutthroat lawyer with a change of heart. He’s really good in his nasty mode.

In the game show realm, Gold Rush has an interesting premise and is being touted as TV’s first interactive game. The viewing audience is provided with clues and a chance to win prizes. With American Idol’s consistently strong voter turnout, there’s certainly potential with this format.

FOX

Fox claims to have the most engaged viewers, but you couldn’t tell from their screening, which was a debacle. American Idol judge Simon Cowell said we were the ‘most bored audience he’d ever seen’ and he was bang on.

This season, the net is offering more sitcoms. ‘Til Death, about old and newly married couples, features Everybody Loves Raymond’s Brad Garrett. Sadly, it’s predictable and Brad’s no Raymond. Happy Hour, about young singles in Chicago, isn’t very happy or funny. The Wedding Album is about a NYC photographer who shoots weddings and…that’s it. The Winner is a loser about a mysophobic (one who is afraid of dirt or contamination) misfit who bonds with a similarly afflicted young boy – yuck!

More promising is Vanished, an action thriller about a missing senator’s wife with religious and political undertones. Standoff is another intense thriller about a pair of crisis negotiators who are romantically involved. And finally, Justice goes behind the scenes at criminal trials. It’s ho hum despite the obvious CSI spin.

Finally, what’s Fox without reality? Duets from Simon Cowell pairs singers with celebs from outside the music industry who compete for charity while On the Lot, from Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett, lets the audience vote for the best student film. Again, no clips, but the pedigree is good so expect decent offerings.

The verdict? There were no standout shows – this certainly won’t be a gangbuster year – but there are a few that should pull solid ratings.

Sylvia’s Picks:

Fox: Vanished is an intense thriller that should be successful following Prison Break and leading into 24.

CBS: I like Shark simply because of James Woods, who is a terrific actor – and his rendition of the song ‘Mack the Knife’ is worth the price of admission. With limited competition from ER and The OC it will fare well. CBS also carries another strong contender in Smith that should find an audience in those not watching ABC’s Boston Legal.

ABC: Brothers & Sisters is one of those addictive, continuous dramas. With a great lead-in from Desperate Housewives and Calista Flockhart starring, it should do well.

I’m a sucker for slapstick humour so I enjoyed both Let’s Rob… and Big Day. However, both have strong competition so it’s more likely that Fox’s predictable ‘Til Death and CBS’ The Class will be the more successful sitcoms in the 2006/07 season.

Sylvia Criger is a managing partner at Toronto-based Media Buying Services.