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Fall Development: Great Expectations

At the networks' fall development meetings in Los Angeles last week, ABC's sizzle reel promised big success with its slate of shows. Then came the disclaimer, at the close of the reel: “Maybe not. We're just hoping for three or four solid hits.”

It was a welcome bit of comic relief at the pre-upfront, where, as always, networks and advertisers are engaged in the business of great expectations. Advertisers were doing their best to defrost after shuttling among talent-heavy presentations on cold soundstages—including a skit with Howie

Mandel and two scantily clad models on the set of NBC's Deal or No Deal that attendees felt dragged on too long.

In a presentation near the Ugly Betty soundstage, ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson moderated a panel with the cast of a new as-yet-untitled Grey's Anatomy spinoff and answered questions. For their parts, Fox chose a theater, and CBS and its co-owned CW opted for a number of smaller one-on-one sessions allowing for an exchange of dialogue.

As is always the case with very little material in the can, networks rely instead on bringing out talent and, often, showing clips of their pervious work.

At the presentations, buyers came away impressed by the networks' willingness to spend more and take greater risks this year. They cite fewer police shows and soapier ensemble dramas, especially at ABC with pilots like Cashmere Mafia.

They were also struck by how the networks are running away from last year's big rage, the failed serialized-drama format, as well as how big-name directors like Spike Lee and Guy Richie are attached to TV pilots.

Revived comedy development

Advertisers also zeroed in on the networks' renewed interest in comedy development. “There seems to be a resurging commitment to try and make comedies work this year, more so than in years past,” says John Rash, senior VP/director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun.

Comedies were noticeably absent from the list released at ABC's pre-upfront presentation of 14 series receiving early pickups—the most ever—including Men in Trees, which had been on the bubble. The network's decision to bring back Boston Legal was never in doubt since it attracts higher-income viewers, a spokeswoman says.

ABC also attracted attention for introducing a seamless commercial scheme leading into and out of breaks. For instance, a show's characters would watch a spot on their TV that then naturally leads into viewers' seeing the same one on their screens.

“It is nice to see them thinking about it,” says Larry Blasius, executive VP/director of negotiations for Magna Global. “It's not for everybody, but the industry has been after something like this. It's long overdue.”

New commercial tacticS

Networks have been experimenting with new tactics to attract advertisers, such as The CW's popular, branded program-like short commercials known as “content wraps.”

Sales executives sought to reassure buyers that they are working hard to find metrics and selling tools that will help the agencies keep their clients in TV and not defecting solely to, say, the Web.

NBC got praise for unveiling research tools to track viewers between TV and ancillary platforms. After the network emphasized the online success of Heroes, Rash said, “It continues to happen that shows that seem to get more traction online tend to have a male slant.”

Buyers were also buzzing about CW's Gossip Girl, a female-skewing show that has Web potential. It focuses on the lives of rich kids and their parents in New York as revealed by a secret tell-all blogger.

And Fox Sales President John Nesvig scored points when he called on the TV industry and buyers to “come together” to settle their differences over the setting of ad rates. Advertisers won round one last summer by nixing networks' attempt to have seven-day DVR usage included in Nielsen ratings.