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ABC: Recession Specialist?

Disney-ABC TV Group President Anne Sweeney opened ABC's upfront presentation to advertisers at New York's Lincoln Center on May 19 by acknowledging the turmoil wrought by the troubled economy. She and other ABC executives spent much of the network's upfront proceedings pitching their highly engaged, affluent female viewers as a desirable target during the recession. “The world has changed since we were last here,” Sweeney said.

In a sinking economy, it's ABC's core viewers who won't go generic, ad sales chief Mike Shaw told advertisers.

ABC Entertainment Group President Steve McPherson echoed Shaw's sentiment, emphasizing the upside of the economic downturn. “What it's all about are the shows. It is exactly in times like these that people crave more entertainment,” he said. “Our success will come from programming that engages viewers. ABC has the shows that make people feel.”

And next season, ABC is banking on shows that make people laugh. It's no secret that the network has struggled to build solid comedy franchises, though it hasn't been for lack of trying. ABC will again attempt to push that rock up the hill, mounting a comedy night on Wednesday that includes four new sitcoms: Hank, The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town.

Freshman drama Eastwick—which McPherson described as “a re-conceptualization” of the big-screen adaptation of John Updike's novel The Witches of Eastwick—will close out the night at 10 p.m.

Modern Family, presented mockumentary-style with Ed O'Neill as the patriarch of an eclectic, blended family, enjoyed some of the best buzz of the week. Not so for Hank, which stars Kelsey Grammer as a corporate titan who is forced to reconnect with his family when he loses his job. The Middle centers on Patricia Heaton as an Indiana mother. Courteney Cox leads Cougar Town as a recently divorced mom.

McPherson described the gamble on five new shows for Wednesday night as the network's “biggest risk” as well as its “biggest opportunity.” He added that thematically, the comedies will help get ABC “back into the family business.”

The Wednesday-night lineup is part of a new fall slate that also includes six new dramas and the reality entry Shark Tank from Mark Burnett.

Returning series include Scrubs and Better Off Ted; the shows will be paired, most likely during midseason, according to McPherson. ABC ordered 18 episodes of Scrubs, with star Zach Braff committed to at least six of them.

The remaining new dramas are The Deep End, Flash Forward, Happy Town, V and Jerry Bruckheimer crime procedural The Forgotten. The Shonda Rhimes drama Inside the Box, starring Kim Raver as a Washington, D.C., television news producer, has been sent back into development.

Like his peers at CBS, McPherson characterized NBC's decision to program Jay Leno at 10 p.m. as an opportunity. “It's a different audience, I think it's an older audience,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how many watch that show every night of the week and make it an appointment; that certainly isn't how they do it in late night. We think it's an opportunity for CBS and ourselves.”