Sometime between Jamie Foxx's crooning “America the Beautiful” for NBC's Winter Olympics coverage and UPN President Dawn Ostroff's sashaying onstage at the Theater at Madison Square Garden with a boa—constrictor—around her neck, the 2005-06 television season started to take shape.
After a week of pomp and pageantry, the broadcast-networks' upfront week concluded with heavy doses of justification of the choices for the coming season. Facing a flat year with more than $9 billion in upfront ad commitments, the networks are taking some leaps of faith with some shows while relying on trusted formulas with others.
Some networks are making daring scheduling moves, pitting unknown shows against bona fide hits in the hope that audiences are ready for fresh material. Thursday nights, in particular, are no longer sacred. Sitcoms are all but dead to the networks, with a paucity of potential A-list sitcoms coming out of this season's crop. And wish-fulfillment shows—those formulaic tear-jerkers in which network producers make a game of helping the needy—are filling the gaps.
As network execs try to predict what shows will fly, viewers will decide with their remotes. Already, several veteran shows, such as CBS' Judging Amy, have been whacked. To better decipher what the networks have to offer, consider five essential trends unfolding this fall.
1. Rookies vs. Veterans
Some unknown new series are going up against heavyweights. CBS, for instance, will air its new 10 p.m. Tuesday-night drama Close to Home against Law & Order: SVU on NBC and Boston Legal on ABC.
CBS' 9 p.m. Wednesday procedural drama Criminal Minds faces the monster ABC hit Lost and Bruckheimer's new buzz-worthy NBC military drama E-Ring.
In fact, all the networks face some tough sledding at certain times, says Bill Carroll, VP of programming for station rep firm Katz and a 20-year veteran of network upfronts. “New shows on all the networks are going against really established shows.”
On Thursday nights—considered TV's biggest night because it accounts for 40% of all network advertising revenue—networks have traditionally rolled over, fearful about going up against, at first, NBC's Friends and, then, CBS' Survivor.
“Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake” on Thursday, says Viacom Co-President/Co-COO and CBS Chairman Les Moonves. He was the first to take on NBC, which had long owned the night. With Friends gone, though, CBS' challenge turned into a romp on the strength of Survivor, CSI and Without a Trace. Now others want a piece of the Thursday-night action.
The WB will air its hits Smallville and Everwood on Thursday night, while Fox is keeping The O.C. in its 8 p.m. perch and adding The Reunion, about six high school friends. ABC has sent super-spy Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) on what could be a suicide mission, with Alias moving to 8 p.m. Thursdays. It will lead into a new version of The Night Stalker, whose mission will be to help prop up Primetime Live at 10. ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson calls the move “scary and exciting.”
Fox audaciously scheduled critically acclaimed Arrested Development, which was in danger of being cancelled, at 8 p.m. Monday. Others weren't so lucky. NBC whacked Law & Order: Trial by Jury. CBS jettisoned its oldest-skewing shows, Joan of Arcadia and Judging Amy. And ABC bid farewell to the comedies My Wife & Kids and 8 Simple Rules.
2. I want my B(ruckheimer)-TV
Jerry Bruckheimer, the creator/executive producer of CSI is the king of network-television production these days. Next season, he will be broadcast TV's most influential and prolific producer, generating 9½ hours of programming, including four new series, the most of any producer. In contrast, his crime rival, Law & Order's Dick Wolf, will have three hours now that NBC cancelled spin-off Law & Order: Trial by Jury.
The Jerry Bruckheimer TV machine already churns out TV's most-watched drama CSI and spin-offs CSI: Miami and CSI: New York, as well as dependable dramas Without a Trace and Cold Case and the Emmy-winning reality hit The Amazing Race. Now Bruckheimer is branching out.
With The WB's upcoming Just Legal, he injects a lighter, comedic tone, pairing Miami Vice alum Don Johnson, a down-on-his-luck lawyer with an idealistic teenage partner. CBS' upcoming Close to Home is centered on a beautiful young prosecutor tackling dark crimes in her seemingly peaceful community.
Having conquered crime shows, Bruckheimer is now attempting a sitcom. Sometime midseason, The WB will debut his Modern Men, but the show already needs some tweaking. The pilot stars Just Shoot Me's Wendie Malick as a life coach trying to teach three twentysomething guys to relate to women. When ABC surprisingly renewed ratings-starved comedy Jake in Progress, which co-stars Malick, it meant her role in Modern Men must be recast.
NBC, struggling to find new hit dramas, is hoping for a little Bruckheimer magic with the upcoming drama E-Ring, about the inner-workings of the Pentagon. In usual Bruckheimer fashion, it boasts big-name actors in Dennis Hopper and Benjamin Bratt. NBC is so bullish on E-Ring that it pushed The West Wing out of its 9 p.m. Wednesday berth to make room for this hopeful.
With 10 shows on his slate, is Bruckheimer spread too thin? Says The WB President of Entertainment David Janollari, “Jerry has never failed to put his hands all over every single show he does. I'm not expecting him to start now.”
3. Light on Laughter
Comedies, once a staple of prime time on the networks, stayed scarce again. For fall, only two comedies appear on the ABC schedule, two each at CBS, Fox, and UPN and one, for the moment, at The WB.
Of the sitcoms showcased last week, only two created enough real buzz to potentially make the A-list: NBC's single-camera comedy My Name Is Earl, about a low-rent crook, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesdays, and UPN's Everyone Hates Chris, narrated and co-executive-produced by comic Chris Rock, at 8 p.m. Thursdays (though being on a mini-network and having a tough time slot could hurt its chances).
CBS' Two and a Half Men proved to be strong with Everybody Loves Raymond as a lead-in; now the sitcom takes the 9 p.m. Raymond slot and becomes the anchor of CBS' Monday comedy franchise. Critics say it must prove itself there to be a stand-alone hit.
At CBS, the 8:30 Monday sitcom How I Met Your Mother has picked up some buzz; ABC has Crumbs, a dysfunctional family in a midseason comedy starring The Wonder Years' kid-turned-adult Fred Savage, from Disney's Touchstone Television.
But judging a sitcom's chances is tough at this point, since few in the industry have seen full pilots, only cut-downs. Often, ad buyers are persuaded by a combination of factors: the clips used, how well the network articulates its strategy, and where networks put the shows.
For example, CBS put the high-concept sitcom Out of Practice at 9:30 Monday in probably the best hammock on TV, between Two and a Half Men and CSI: Miami. The network is likely betting that it can easily promote stars like Henry Winkler and Stockard Channing, as well as the concept of a dysfunctional family of doctors.
CBS, meanwhile, has moved King of Queens back to Monday nights at 8 from Wednesday at 9, which may help make Mother into a franchise show. Queens star Kevin James has signed for one more year at a reported $500,000-plus per episode. That fee could drastically climb next year if James decides to leave to pursue a full-time movie career and CBS has nothing strong enough to lead off the night.
4. More Episodes to the Rescue
Vowing to attract viewer loyalty, the networks made a promise to viewers: More episodes are on the way.
Many believe ABC risked alienating its audience with a long midseason hiatus for Desperate Housewives, but viewers were patient. Even so, the networks—like The WB, which ordered 26 episodes of returning drama One Tree Hill—promised to go into next season with larger episode orders.
Other motives besides public service are at work, however. During the network run of shows, the studios deficit-finance them. Their goal is to get to 100 episodes, then sell the programs in syndication for a hefty profit.
When the shows were under separate ownership, the networks had no vested interest in seeing them succeed. Now, with vertical integration putting all the networks under the same roof as the production units, it is in the networks' best interest to rack up the episodes as fast as possible. They can get there in four years with 26 episodes versus five years with 22 episodes.
Having more episodes is important for another key reason. With ratings races tighter now than ever and ad dollars harder for the networks to come by, it's important for them to come to the upfronts and claim victory in any ratings category.
The only way to accomplish that is to have more episodes ordered, so they can go into the May sweeps with their best shows and fewer reruns. “It's all about bragging rights,” one industry observer noted.
Worried that the reality craze is slowing down? It's not. It's just morphing. The networks sprinkled unscripted tear-jerkers liberally around their fall lineups. Can anyone unseat reigning champ Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in the race to make women sob and men get called SOBs for being so insensitive? The early money might actually be on Ashton Kutcher's Beauty and the Geek (debuting June 1 on The WB), which had people talking well after the network presented it to advertisers. The show is about a bunch of geeky men pairing up with a bevy of intellectually challenged babes, with the idea that the couples teach each other to be better people—and hope not to be eliminated each week.
Competition for the Tear-Jerker Tiara will also come this fall from NBC's Three Wishes, in which former country star Amy Grant saunters into a small town with her crew and makes the wishes of three needy residents come true. From a little girl who gets a much needed operation to a young boy getting adopted by his beloved stepfather, prepare for an all-out and shameless assault on your heartstrings.
And while neither Beauty nor Three Wishes showed much in the way of product placement in the clips, these shows are obviously prime vehicles to sell, well, anything. If reality shows have taught us anything, it is that our emotions are for sale. Although ABC has only the one hour of Home Edition slated for fall (gone are the original Extreme Makeover and Extreme Makeover: How'd They Do That?), other shows returning from the feel-good movement include NBC's The Biggest Loser and ABC's Wife Swap.
Additional reporting by Ben Grossman
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