What's the Next Big Thing?

Networks are giving advertisers a sneak preview this week of what series are in development. The idea is to whet Madison Avenue's appetite for the millions they'll be asked to spend on next season's slate.

Not every network is performing its dog-and-pony show. CBS notably sits it out. The rest have their own presentation styles. Viacom sibling UPN showed buyers its plans late last week. The WB is hosting small meetings in Burbank. ABC and Fox are courting buyers at their studios. And NBC's presentation for Los Angeles buyers will take place on the set of Las Vegas
in Culver City.

Still, the dynamics of pilot season remain. Each network has ordered about the same number of drama and comedy pilots as last year. "It's only Fox and the cable outlets that are doing year-round development," says one agent. "If you have a good enough, big enough project, you've always been able to sell it. Now it's just a matter of when the networks are going to premiere these shows."

A notable change: Reality isn't subbing for prime time failures.

Conventional wisdom held that the upfront was a time to sell scripted fare. Reality was slotted when a scripted show tanked. No more. "There will be a more open and strategic, if not aggressive, acceptance of reality. It's not just a building block but a cornerstone of many network schedules," says John Nash, senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations, Campbell Mithun. "The genre is here to stay. Advertising investment follows audience interest."

Even so, he says, "networks would be wise to continue to focus on scripted development."

Dramatic Changes

As last year, ABC is weighty with dramas. It has 14 on order (including an eight-episode pickup for Empire,
a limited series about ancient Rome). Of course, ABC had the most trouble of any network launching dramas. Probably no new drama ABC launched in 2003-04 will be back for a second season, with the possible exceptions of The D.A. (it just premiered March 19) and Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital.

Last year, ABC favored crime procedurals, with almost every show on the roster focused on law or crime. Now only six of 14 have an investigative tone. Many—notably Desperate Housewives, Doing It, Gramercy Park, and David E. Kelley's show about three sisters who are also wedding planners—resemble the frothy nighttime soaps that have been absent from prime time.

The success of lighter fare—notably, Fox's The O.C., NBC's Las Vegas,
and CBS' Joan of Arcadia—has demonstrated the power of the non-cop genre. Even CBS has lightened up on its crime-based orders. Although six of CBS's 10 drama pilots include some crime-fighting, last year nine of 11 focused on crime. Even Joan of Arcadia's dad is a police officer. The model worked for CBS, but "there's always room for improvement," says Nash. "There is a need to develop a hit with the same creative auspices as Everybody Loves Raymond. Without moving from their base, CBS needs to add younger viewers."

Celebrity Beat

With Clubhouse, Mel Gibson and a top-flight team from Spelling are creating a male fantasy drama about a batboy for the New York Yankees. (Gibson's Icon Productions, in association with Touchstone Television , also has Kevin Hill,
a drama about a lawyer raising his niece, for UPN, in the hopper.)

Gibson isn't the only movie star in the mix at CBS. Sandra Bullock is producing Sudbury, a show about two magical sisters, potentially starring Boston Public's Jeri Ryan. And Eric and Kim Tannenbaum, producers of Two and a Half Men, are bringing CBS a drama about the life and loves of a prominent young food critic.

Fox's emphasis is on comedy, with five animated shows in the works: Seth McFarlane's American Dad, Carsey-Werner-Mandabach's Blue Aloha, Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks
(based on a popular comic strip), and yet-untitled shows from Dr.Katz's Jonathan Katz and Just Shoot Me's Steve Levitan.

Fox is clearly pushing hard for the next Simpsons, but it would probably settle happily for another King of the Hill.

The WB, hoping to make inroads with comedy, has a lot riding on Jeff Foxworthy's sketch show, Blue Collar TV. Expect to see more reality in the network's future and some rescheduling.

UPN also has lots of reality on the slate, including a show from hip-hop artist Missy Elliot. Looking to capitalize on the young women it attracts, UPN has America's Next TopModel
and its Monday-night comedy block.

"The one thing everyone is chasing is a really great breakout show, and you don't know if that's going to walk in the door," says Robin Schwartz, president of Regency Television, a boutique production company. "People want quality."

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.