Sneak Peek at Network Development

As ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson prepared for the annual ritual of network fall development presentations last week, he seemed hesitant to sell ad buyers on ABC's pilot slate. While that may seem unusual for someone charged with drumming up advertiser interest prior to the May upfronts, McPherson nonetheless demurred. “Honestly, we haven't shot a frame of film yet on 95% of what we're doing,” he said.

Instead of relying on flashy footage from the past projects of actors cast in ABC pilots, McPherson chose to use his appearance Wednesday on the set of Grey's Anatomy as a forum to address the network's successes, failures and future strategy.

It was actually NBC that stirred things up the most, as network rivals and producers took issue with the network's mega-platform “360-degree” approach to program development, outlined during its presentation Thursday on the set of Las Vegas. NBC Universal Cable Entertainment President Jeff Gaspin, who heads digital content and cross-network strategy, said the network wants producers to come to program pitch sessions with ideas for new-media components, like the “animated graphic novel” element used for supernatural-drama pilot Heroes. “Shows will be designed from the beginning to include digital components,” he said. “For NBC Universal, there is no higher priority than staking our claim in these emerging markets. It's a seminal change in our relationship with viewers.”

Other networks scoffed at NBC's holistic approach. “The product first has to work on television, then you can look at all the other stuff,” The CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff commented. “Of course, we are looking at all the other ways to use content, but first and foremost, it has to work as a great TV show. Without that, you aren't going anywhere.”

Another high-ranking broadcast-network executive, who asked not to be named, agreed. “When you have a hit show and clear execution, the platforms take care of themselves. There's no shortage of platforms developed for series like Desperate Housewives and The Sopranos. Writers should not have to think about it. They should just be focused on developing strong shows.”

Life after football

The focus at ABC was scheduling. When ABC punts Monday Night Football to ESPN in the fall, it must decide whether to go with existing or new series, or a combination of the two, in MNF's place. Of the returning Monday shows, McPherson has been pleased with the performances of Wife Swap, Supernanny, Miracle Workers and The Bachelor, and he won't rule out moving Grey's Anatomy to Monday nights (other nights have also been mentioned as possibilities).

“We'll consider all those possibilities,” he told B&C.

With its success against Survivor, American Idol and the Winter Olympics, Dancing With the Stars “is a potential Thursday-night asset for us,” said McPherson, who stressed not overexposing the show.

Having established itself on the drama side, McPherson has turned to unconventional comedies, as ABC has jumped on the Earl-esque single-camera bandwagon for next season.


At the CW presentation, executives revealed little about their fall schedule, confirming only that America's Top Model and WWE Smackdown! will be there. But tea-leaf readers focused on The CW's mention of 13 shows, making up 12 hours of UPN and WB programming, including Veronica Mars and One Tree Hill from the dramas and Reba and Everybody Hates Chris among the comedies. Six previously announced pilots also received mentions: dramas Split Decision, Palm Springs, Runaways and Aquaman and comedies She Said, He Said and Girlfriends spinoff The Game.

Ostroff said afterward that she expects to pick up “a couple more comedies” and wouldn't rule out original daytime programming eventually.

And The CW name looks like a keeper. CBS Corp. President/CEO Leslie Moonves ruled out a name change—citing widespread awareness of it among 18- to 34-year-olds—but revealed that The CW will unveil a new logo, probably before the upfronts.

Meanwhile, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, appearing more confident than in past appearances, admitted that one of his biggest challenges is launching programming off a fourth-place prime time schedule. His task could be made easier this fall, when NFL football lands on NBC Sunday nights, giving the network a big promotional platform. With Saturday nights not much of a concern for the networks, Reilly only needs to concentrate on weeknights.

NBC has three new shows slated for the fall: serial drama Kidnapped, organized-crime drama The Black Donnellys and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (starring former Friend Matthew Perry), the Aaron Sorkin-Thomas Schlamme comedy that's set behind the scenes of a sketch-comedy show. The one thing Reilly desires is “a little more inherently female development on the drama side.”

When an ad buyer asked what would constitute ratings success this fall, Reilly handed the question off to NBC U Sales and Marketing President Keith Turner. “Any,” he replied.

But Scott Haugenes, senior VP and group director of national broadcast for media-services firm Initiative, was encouraged by NBC. “They made some good scheduling moves already,” he said, “and the stuff we saw today looks promising creatively.”


Fox, meanwhile, told advertisers it intends to stick with its strategy of debuting programs prior to the baseball post-season, according to Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming, then using the fall ballgames to promote new and returning series. Once American Idol returns in January, Fox will use the powerhouse program to draw viewers to programs scheduled around it.

CBS, for its part, is breaking from the pack in a number of ways. Although the rest of the networks held their events in Los Angeles, CBS will present this week in New York. The network is expected to tout the full-season 2006-07 renewal orders. It has already delivered 14 series representing 13 hours of programming and aims to ride the momentum of proven performers like CSI.