Survivors, not thrivers

The tried-and-true dominate the U.S. networks' New York upfronts.

When Jimmy Kimmel announced, ‘We have scaled back’ during ABC’s presentation, he summed up the U.S. networks’ 2008-09 upfront approach: fewer stars, fewer pilots, fewer clips to watch. One of the reasons was the WGA strike that ended in February, which resulted in fewer new shows being produced. The networks offered a total of 16 this fall: Ten dramas, four sitcoms and two reality-based programs.

This is looking like another ho-hum season, judging from the new entries. I haven’t come across clips of any series with the potential to be breakout hits. They are survivors, at best.

Networks seem to be going with formulas that used to work by introducing (or re-introducing) shows like Knight Rider and 90210 instead of more controversial and risky shows like last season’s Kid Nation. They continue to employ the strategy of utilizing their top shows to provide best possible lead-in positions for new entries. While this strategy might help, the success of a show ultimately depends on whether it has the ability to engage and connect with viewers enough to make them return week after week. The networks have also come up with various research initiatives, mostly qualitative, to enhance their offerings, which I applaud.

I also attended the Turner (cable) presentation and was pleasantly surprised to see its continued focus on scripted dramas (I particularly enjoyed Raising the Bar from Steven Bochco, who adds credibility to any show) and the continuing migration of talent to the cable networks.

ABC

ABC’s 2008 fall schedule is rather similar to last year’s. Instead of funnelling money into new series, the net is giving last season’s offerings a chance to flourish. Shows from the 2007-08 season like Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone, Private Practice and Dirty Sexy Money (with Lucy Liu joining the cast) are all returning. As well, there are 17 pilots in the works for potential airings during mid-season.

Still, there are only two new shows this fall. Opportunity Knocks is a combination of Extreme Home Makeover and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. A host shows up at the home of a new family every week with a truckload of prizes to test how well they know each other. Ashton Kutcher is the producer.

Life on Mars is an adaptation of a BBC thriller about a cop transported to the ’70s after a car crash. It’s a science-fiction crime drama that stars Jason O’Mara and Colm Meaney. This show has the coveted position of following Grey’s Anatomy at 10p.m. Thursday night, and therefore has a chance.

NBC

NBC had announced its schedule a month earlier, and produced no pilots. The plan is to tailor programming by hour, identifying them as family

(8-9p.m.), blockbuster (9-10p.m.) and adult-themed (10-11p.m.) blocks. The net introduced three dramas and one sitcom, plus a half-hour Saturday Night Live Election series to capitalize on the U.S. presidential race.

My Own Worst Enemy stars Christian Slater as a family man who shares his body with a crime fighter. It’s scheduled in the post-Heroes time slot and will be replaced by a reality show called The Philanthropist in spring 2009. Does NBC feel that it doesn’t have the potential to go the full season?

Knight Rider is based on this year’s TV remake of the ’80s hit. NBC has high hopes for it, even scheduling an encore on Saturdays. Crusoe, which stars Philip Winchester (Thunderbirds) and Sam Neill (The Tudors), is about a man shipwrecked on a tropical island for 28 years. But its Friday night time slot will limit the show’s potential.

Kath and Kim, the net’s only comedy, stars Molly Shannon and Selma Blair. It’s based on a successful Australian comedy, but with no clips, it’s hard to predict its success. With Biggest Loser as a lead-in, the best scenario would be for it to retain that show’s audience.

CW

CW knows its audience, and its goal is to be ‘OMG TV!’ This year the net introduced the 3D approach: ‘Demographic, Desirable, Destination.’ The objective is to target women 18 to 34, which is reflected in the schedule.

One new series is 90210, an update of the Fox hit starring Lori Loughlin (Full House) and Shenae Grimes (Degrassi: The Next Generation). It will also feature guest appearances by the original cast. Response was good when the show was introduced.

Pairing with 90210 on Tuesday nights is Surviving the Filthy Rich, based on the book How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls and starring Joanna Garcia (Reba). It’s a Gossip Girl clone, but I doubt it will deliver that show’s numbers.

There’s Stylista, which the CW’s Dawn Ostroff calls ‘The Devil Wears Prada as a reality show.’ From the Project Runway producer, it will benefit from the America’s Next Top Model lead-in, but won’t equal Project Runway’s audience.

CBS

CBS’s strength is in procedural drama, and it’s introducing two this fall. The Mentalist is about a detective (Simon Baker, The Guardian) with a past as a fake psychic who has a remarkable track record for solving crimes. It’s scheduled on Tuesday after NCIS.

Eleventh Hour, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, is also based on a British miniseries. It’s an X-Files-like thriller starring Rufus Sewell as a scientist employed by the government. It is scheduled on Thursday after CSI, the best possible position.

In The Ex-List, a psychic tells a woman (Elizabeth Reaser, Grey’s Anatomy) to marry one of her exes within a year or be alone forever. It’s slotted after Ghost Whisperer, which might help it retain female viewers.

CBS moved its two hit sitcoms, Two and a Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine, to serve as lead-ins for two new comedies. The Worst Week is about a magazine editor (Kyle Bornheimer) who jumps through hoops to please his girlfriend’s parents. The Two and a Half Men lead-in should help.

In Project Gary, Jay Mohr (Action) plays a contractor who juggles custody of two tweens with dating. It follows The New Adventures of Old Christine on Wednesdays.

FOX

This year Fox introduces ‘Remote Free’ TV, an attempt to hold audiences through shorter commercial breaks of five minutes for two new shows: Fringe and Dollhouse.

Fringe, a much-hyped drama from the producer of Alias, JJ Abrams, centres on a female FBI agent (Anna Torv) forced to work with an institutionalized scientist (John Noble) to figure out unexplained phenomena. It is scheduled after House on Tuesday night, which will give it a strong lead-in.

Dollhouse, a mid-season replacement, is from Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and stars Buffy’s Eliza Dushku.

Fox introduced one sitcom, Do Not Disturb, about the team at a hip NYC hotel. It stars Crossing Jordan’s Jerry O’Connell and is written by Arrested Development’s Abraham Higginbotham, but it won’t get much help from its lead-in, Til Death.

Florence Ng is VP of broadcast investments at Toronto-based ZenithOptimedia.