Upfront 2003: The Programmers – New Set of Friends

Among the derivative sitcoms and numerous cop shows are a smattering of newcomers with breakout potential

Perhaps you’d like to find out what you just bought. The prime-time upfront was largely wrapped last week in a five-day frenzy, and some $9 billion went down before hardly anyone screened a pilot. Programming specialists at media agencies warn that they were forced to make snap judgments based on a few minutes of clips before estimating audience shares. Who said cable was the commodity? But we digress. The TV season just ended was one of seismic shifts: Four of the six networks saw double-digit changes in viewers 12-34—with ABC and the WB on the plus side, NBC and UPN on the downswing—portending a vastly reordered TV landscape. Surprisingly, the six nets gained a tick in this hard-to-please demo, while losing the customary 3 percent in adults 18-49 and 4 percent in 50-plus.

Meanwhile, the nets proudly displayed their latest batch of derivative sitcoms and umpteen cop shows. It would be too tedious for words to call this an uninspired batch of shows with no clear breakout hits. And it would be, well, a bit harsh. People are looking forward to NBC’s Coupling, CBS’ Two and a Half Men, ABC’s Karen Sisco, Fox’s The O.C., WB’s Tarzan and Jane and UPN’s All of Us, among others. Not to mention a new American Idol and an all-star Survivor, another hellacious day of 24, and the long goodbye of Friends. So don’t fill your dance card with Trading Spaces and Law & Order repeats just yet.



NBC

The longtime leader in demos, NBC saw its lead shrink yet again this season as its adults 18-49 rating fell 13 percent and two share points. Yes, the post-Olympic hangover really hurts, but so does the decline of veteran hits Frasier, West Wing, Will & Grace and E.R. Three iterations of Law & Order and a little help from Fear Factor—prime time’s most reviled show, and that’s saying something—helped keep NBC afloat. While analysts and rivals give mixed grades to the network’s new lineup, there are bright spots Tuesday and Sunday.

NBC bids to boost Monday at 9 with a flashy new drama, Las Vegas, starring James Caan. Clearly the network hopes some of the young men watching Fear Factor at 8 will stick around, but most observers label this show a mistake, and the news division is already eyeing the slot for Dateline. But Steve Sternberg, senior vp at Magna Global USA, thinks the public’s fascination with behind-the-neon Vegas gives it a shot: “It’ll be younger than CBS’ comedies and beat [Fox’s] Skin, which is where it needs to be.”

Tuesday remains a comedy graveyard for NBC with Whoopi at 8. Widely considered the worst new show of the season, Whoopi Goldberg’s sitcom looks to be this year’s Emeril. There ought to be a law against giving a network series to an erstwhile “center square.” (Please, write your congressman.) At 8:30 comes Happy Family, with John Larroquette and Christine Baranski as wannabe empty nesters. The clips had some laughs, but insiders acknowledge the show will skew old and rivals say Larroquette, who hasn’t scored since Night Court, leaves viewers cold.

At 9, Frasier is running on fumes—its former 15 share could be down to a 12 against the comedy juggernaut that is ABC’s According to Jim. Relocating Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to 10 from Friday is a “terrific move,” says Jordan Breslow, Mediacom’s manager of national broadcast research. “I could definitely see it hurting NYPD Blue.”

Gains on Tuesday, a higher-revenue night, should more than offset Friday losses from this move. Wednesday’s schedule remains the same, though West Wing fans dread a Sorkin-less version, and no one expects a ratings bump.

On Thursday, in the last season NBC can expect to make hay with Friends, observers worry the show will be stretched thin with just 18 original episodes before its boffo finale. High hopes are pinned on 9:30 entrant Coupling, which features six randy Manhattan singletons. Most like it well enough, but the show’s explicit nature could be tough for advertisers. One NBC-er calls Coupling an “acquired taste—that’s why we brought back Good Morning, Miami.” As for the rest of the night, Scrubs may be maxed out, Will & Grace continues to decline and, ominously, some E.R. repeats have been squashed by Without a Trace. Unless NBC pulls a rabbit out of its hat with Coupling, this is Must-See Thursday’s last hurrah.

NBC may have punted Friday, a night it has owned, by moving Law & Order: SVU. At 8, Miss Match, starring Alicia Silverstone, will have a tough time holding Providence’s viewers, though it does appeal to young women. “It’s light entertainment,” offers John Rash, senior vp at Campbell Mithun, likening the newcomer to The Love Boat. At 10, critics’ darling Boomtown will be lucky to pull a Homicide-type number versus CBS’ intriguing The Handler.

Sunday’s appealing American Dreams hasn’t taken off here and faces stiffer competition from dramas on CBS and ABC. Analysts suggest having it lead off Wednesday or Friday. At 10 comes The Lyon’s Den, a Rob Lowe legal drama that echoes his West Wing character. While feelings about the show are mixed, it should—with the benefit of a better lead-in—finish off ABC’s re-relocated The Practice.



ABC

ABC saw a ratings bounce this season—up 6 percent in adults 18-49 and 15 percent in 18-34—thanks to a bunch of reality shows the network has largely disavowed. Insiders see an upside on Thursday through Sunday, but observers gave ABC’s new lineup their lowest marks. “To quote one of their shows, their schedule really needs an ‘extreme makeover,'” says Shari Anne Brill, vp/director of programming at Carat.

Sternberg is slightly more sanguine: “They’re going to do better in some time periods—the Monday movie, Wednesday at 10, Thursday at 9. They may be stable from last year, but their ratings were so low, what does that mean?”

Monday Night Football will be paired with newsmagazine Primetime Monday, then give way to a movie in January. Tuesday was ABC’s bright spot this season, thanks to John Ritter in 8 Simple Rules and the surprising According to Jim. But Ritter got hammered by American Idol, and rivals smell blood: “They call that a hit? It’s an 8 share,” one scoffs. Analysts agree: “I like 8 Simple Rules, but I don’t think it’s bouncing back,” says Breslow.

At 8:30, I’m With Her, about an ordinary guy living with a movie star, is a decent enough lead-out in an undemanding time slot, while Jim will continue to give Frasier a hard time at 9. At 10, insiders admit that aging NYPD Blue versus Law & Order: SVU is “scary.”

On Wednesday at 8:30 comes It’s All Relative, a Birdcage-like comedy with two gay dads as in-laws to an Archie Bunker-style couple. The show doesn’t really match the family comedy of its lead-in, My Wife and Kids, but may do passably until Idol returns. At 9, The Bachelor declined 20-plus percent this spring, though analysts blame an unsympathetic lead and believe the new guy, Bob, will stop the bleeding. That might help Karen Sisco, a good-looking character drama about a female U.S. Marshal that will struggle to find a foothold against Law & Order.

Big and noisy is how ABC describes Threat Matrix, its Thursday-at-8 drama about high-tech antiterrorism squads. Though more promising than last year’s MIA Dinotopia, analysts wonder whether the newcomer will get sampled. “Threat Matrix has no chance in the world on Thursday,” Breslow predicts.

At 9 is ABC’s reality wheel, starting with Extreme Makeover, another improvement in a tough slot. ABC entertainment president Susan Lyne says the net will only do a reality show that “fits our brand.” Since that genre encompasses Makeover and Celebrity Mole but not All American Girl, it seems ABC’s “brand” means anything over a 3 rating. With Primetime Thursday at 10, analysts complain the night lacks audience flow.

On Friday, ABC attempts to resurrect its TGIF glory, but with less of that icky kid stuff. Lead-off George Lopez more than held its own on Wednesday and offers “a broadly accessible entry point,” says Rash. But Back to Kansas, with Breckin Meyer, at 8:30, is considered condescending and one of the new season’s worst. (For this show, ABC knocked out its Kevin Hart project at the last second, after flying cast members to New York for the upfront.) At 9 comes Hope & Faith, with Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford waxing Laverne & Shirley-esque. Ripa will promote the show relentlessly during her daytime gig with Reege, so it ought to open decently. “Broad works on Friday,” avers a programmer. Life With Bonnie returns at 9:30.

Although ratings were meager this season, it put a dent in Frasier’s female audience. Insiders cite “moments of brilliance,” but expectations are low. If a couple of comedies crater, look for America’s Funniest Home Videos to pop up. “Reestablishing TGIF is a sound strategy, but not all of these programs will work,” says Rash.

Analysts endorse moving Wonderful World of Disney to Saturday and consider L.A. Dragnet at 10 a throwaway. On Sunday, ABC believes its 8 o’clock rookie 10-8 will help Alias at 9. A light, buddy-cop drama in the CHiPs vein, observers turn their thumbs down. “Just horrible,” says Breslow. “If you want a drama here, you go to Cold Case.” Wouldn’t Threat Matrix fit better with Alias? “Too intense,” says an ABC-er. “You’d get a headache.”

Analysts don’t expect a lot more from Alias, that much-hyped, confusing spy show, but the net points to a 9 percent bump since January. The Practice at 10 was considered damaged goods even before word last week that Dylan McDermott and Lara Flynn Boyle, among others, are leaving. Now it looks deader than a dodo.



CBS

In a year of wild swings, CBS’ ratings were essentially flat—down a bit in younger viewers, up a hair in older segments, which was good enough to close the gap with NBC. Having shored up Monday and Thursday this season, CBS entertainment president Nancy Tellem looks for upside on Wednesday and Friday. Analysts generally praised the schedule, with the marked exception of Wednesday, which one analyst called “a disaster area.”

Leading Monday with Yes, Dear is a low-risk move, and most endorse 9:30 newcomer Two and a Half Men, starring Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer as mismatched brothers raising a kid. Insiders call this one a no-brainer. The show is exquisitely hammocked and CBS chairman Les Moonves even hints it could someday step in for Everybody Loves Raymond. Rash wonders if the leads are relatable enough for female viewers, however, and skeptics say that when Charlie Sheen is your go-to comedy guy, keep your fingers crossed.

Tuesday’s JAG spinoff Navy CIS ought to blend in smoothly at 8, though with Mark Harmon in the lead, it won’t attract any more younger viewers than its forebear.

Wednesday has long been a trouble spot for CBS, and insiders acknowledge this revamped night is a gamble and lacks flow. While the net toyed with four comedies here, it decided to lead with 60 Minutes II, followed by the relocated King of Queens at 9. That move potentially damages a show touted as the logical successor to Raymond. Moonves wants proof: “We’ll see if [King] can anchor that time period,” he says. Observes Rash, “It probably helps Wednesday more than it hurts Monday, but it may keep the show from achieving near-Raymond status.”

Breslow is more blunt: “They’re going to kill off King of Queens. This has got to add five years to its median age.” Analysts were not at all ambivalent about leadout The Stones, a divorce comedy with Robert Klein and Judith Light that is expected to be one of the first cancellations of the season.

At 10, CBS strikes a blow for fat, old white guys with its Randy Quaid-led The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H. Exactly what audience does CBS expect for this quirky David E. Kelley drama? “People who aren’t watching Law & Order!” insiders say in unison—or, women 35-plus and the Picket Fences crowd, anyway. “I like the show, but this isn’t the best place for it with no lead-in,” says an analyst.

Observers like CBS’ chances on Friday, with ol’ reliable JAG as a tent pole at 9. Leading off the night is Joan of Arcadia, a family drama starring Joe Mantegna as a man whose teenage daughter talks to the Almighty. Although Rash wonders if this is “a heavy concept for an escapist time period,” most analysts are believers, figuring the show will scoop up older Providence viewers and end in a dead heat with NBC’s Miss Match in adults 18-49.

Ditto for The Handler, wherein Joe Pantoliano oversees young FBI undercover agents in a nice balance of young leads and “Joey Pants” charisma. CBS was delighted when NBC moved Law & Order: SVU off this night, and if either new drama clicks, the network will take Friday away from NBC. Saturday is arguably bolstered by the addition of Hack at 9, while The District at 10 is expected to make mincemeat of ABC’s retitled L.A. Dragnet.

On Sunday, observers are scratching their heads over Cold Case at 8, wherein a female detective cracks unsolved crimes. Tonally, it seems wrong for CBS’ traditionally female, warm-and-fuzzy Sunday. The net did consider Joan of Arcadia for this slot, but ultimately put its faith in über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Moonves dubs Cold Case “a modern-day Murder She Wrote.” The move will alter CBS’ ailing Sunday movie, formerly a female franchise. “Cold Case expands the range of movies they can show and gives them a hot property to promote in their NFL coverage,” notes Rash.

Fox

After a rotten fall, Fox put together a fantastic ’03 with help from twin phenomena Joe Millionaire and American Idol. Up 5 percent for the season in adults 18-49, the network cut NBC’s lead from 30 percent to 7 percent—before last week’s three-night Idol blowout. Fox TV chairman Sandy Grushow is brazenly gunning for the top spot: “We have upside all over our schedule,” he says. “Where’s NBC’s upside?”

Analysts were largely impressed by the net’s new lineup. “Fox is in a lot better shape than people think,” says Sternberg. “They say, ‘Where would they be without Idol?’ But the fact is, Idol will be a major hit for them for years.” Yet question marks loom on Monday, Thursday and Friday.

Monday leads off with a new installment of Joe Millionaire, details of which are under wraps. Buyers have given Fox a pass here; insiders would be happy to do half the original’s number. Brill needs convincing: “I don’t know what’s up their sleeve, but I don’t think lightning strikes twice.” In January, the time period gets Wonderfalls, an ultra-quirky dramedy about a twentysomething girl who talks to inanimate objects and helps people.

At 9 this fall, Fox will show Skin, a porn-industry melodrama with a Romeo-and-Juliet overlay from producer Jerry Bruckheimer (again), starring Ron Silver. Buyers seem to prefer it to NBC’s Las Vegas, but don’t expect big things since the show may skew old and Ron Silver is not a Fox-type star. Veteran Boston Public didn’t get this plum slot because Fox wants fresh legs here.

On Tuesday, American Juniors (or Idol, teen division) will keep the time period warm. “This time, the parents will be the stars, and they’re worse than Simon,” says Breslow. At 9, the wicked cool 24 has joined prime time’s elite.

Wednesday opens with the amazingly resilient That ’70s Show, whose performance Breslow partly credits to early tune-in for Idol’s results at 8:30. That slot now goes to A Minute With Stan Hooper, with Norm Macdonald as a TV commentator who moves to Wisconsin and finds wacky locals. Using Macdonald as a foil, à la Newhart, Fox is banking on the sarcastic star’s appeal to young men; analysts found the show unremarkable. Idol-enhanced Bernie Mac reassumes the comic’s rightful 9 o’clock berth, followed by the eminently compatible Cedric the Entertainer Presents.

Fox gambles big on former throwaway Thursday with a pair of female-skewing dramas for those too young for Friends. Tru Calling at 8 has Buffy alum Eliza Dushku as a morgue intern who relives days and prevents crimes—call it Minority Report meets Groundhog Day, but in a good way. At 9, The O.C. looks like “Orange County, 90210.” Most analysts believe Fox might make some waves here. “Targeting teens on Thursday is a sound strategy,” says Rash. One Foxer vows patience and says the net will only look at persons 12-34 ratings.

On Friday, two-month wonder Wanda is being asked to lead the night, though observers view her as a star in search of a show. Analysts split on 8:30’s Luis, about a doughnut man in Spanish Harlem—some thought the show had heart, others found it too broadly ethnic.

Boston Public finally gets a 9 o’clock slot, but on a tougher night. Insiders note the show held up versus Fear Factor; if it brings most of its 10 share, Fox is way ahead. Brill doubts this is an appointment show, but thinks it ought to do better than John Doe, and Rash is glad Fox is no longer chasing sci-fi on Friday. Says Grushow, “Everyone’s throwing everything up in the air on Friday, and we’re coming in with a well-established show and relatively established show.”

On Sunday, Fox relegates midseason keeper Oliver Beene to an oft-preempted slot at 7 while launching two more off-beat family comedies. The Ortegas, hammocked at 8:30, has a young man hosting a cable talk show in his backyard studio; his family, led by Cheech Marin, play sidekicks in a mix of comedy, talk show and improv. Most observers were amused by the premise (based on a British hit) but want to see some episodes. Less intriguing was Arrested Development at 9:30, featuring a kooky rich family in a shady business; analysts look to Cracking Up, a back-up show starring SNL alum Molly Shannon.

WB

Hats off, say buyers, to a network that knows what it’s about. With a relentless focus on young adults, WB has grown 11 percent demo-wise and launched at least one successful series for six years running. What’s more, the netlet may finally crack the code in comedy. Analysts say the new lineup looks typically strong.

Having finally fixed Monday with Everwood, WB smartly splits its Tuesday aces. Everyone approves of moving Smallville to lead off Wednesday—Sternberg says shifting it away from 24 may help it take the time period in adults 18-34—and most believe Angel to be a compatible “mythology show” lead-out that may well gain disenfranchised Buffy viewers by adding a few of those characters.

Tuesday at 9 is more dubious, as the net follows the delightful Gilmore Girls with Fearless—Rachel Lee Cook stars as a young FBI agent born without the gene for fear. A Jerry Bruckheimer cop show seems all wrong for this time period and this network. “It’s their only show that doesn’t fit,” says Brill. “It’s so dark, it’s like another Birds of Prey. We could see a midseason correction once the Gilmore Girls spin-off is ready.” WB entertainment president Jordan Levin insists Fearless has “younger female appeal—women love [the heroine’s] strength—which makes it compatible with Gilmore Girls.”

WB tries something fresh in its Thursday black hole with Steve Harvey’s Big Time, a kind of Kids Say the Darndest Things meets “Stupid Human Tricks,” with Harvey quite personable in the Cosby role.

The Jamie Kennedy Experiment returns at 8:30 after the star’s successful film foray, Malibu’s Most Wanted. While no one expects a breakout, these are respectable efforts in a tough time period. At 9, Amanda Bynes’ What I Like About You didn’t make it on Friday, so why should it work here? Analysts call 9:30 comedy Run of the House—a family of parentless young adults livin’ large—one of the season’s lesser-noted worst new shows.

On Friday, WB offers a real TGIF-style lineup, and the net was thrilled when ABC sent America’s Funniest Home Videos to Sunday. Although gains will be modest at best, analysts like the shows. “They have the best family comedy block,” Breslow says. Reba is ready to lead off the night, followed by Like Family, in which a white mom and son move in with black friends and hilarity ensues. Grounded For Life, which held its own after Reba, slides in at 9, while All About the Andersons, about a black comic and family, rounds out the night. “They’ve absolutely improved,” says Brill. “Many shows have that tween sensibility, and ABC’s not getting the tweens.”

On Sunday, early episodes of Smallville at 7 might bring new viewers to that growing hit, while Charmed has held up at 8. Next comes WB’s big new drama, Tarzan and Jane, a modern-day retelling that mixes action, romance—and underwear models. Most analysts liked it, though some would like it even better on Tuesday at 9. Levin demurs: “As Charmed gets older, we’ve got to develop a show to transition into that time period. There’s always an opening on Sunday for a female franchise à la Lois & Clark, and this big, juicy romantic show just felt right.”



UPN

UPN suffered a season to forget. Ratings declined 16 percent or more in adult demos, as three of the netlet’s key franchises—Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Enterprise and WWE Smackdown!—took nosedives. Observers complain that UPN lacks focus, identity and audience flow between nights, and entertainment president Dawn Ostroff promises to “connect the dots across our schedule.” Analysts think a few new shows had potential, but overall, says Sternberg, “They still have big problems.”

Monday’s African-American comedies were UPN’s bright spot last season, and the net hopes to add to that lustre at 8:30 with The Opposite Sex, starring Grammy-winner Eve. Though the clips didn’t exactly sparkle, Breslowe expects the show to work just fine: “Eve is certainly a draw, you’re not asking too much of her and where are viewers going to turn,[CBS’] Still Standing?”

The Monday audience, it is hoped, will flow seamlessly to a new comedy night on Tuesday. CBS boss Moonves, who also oversees UPN, anticipates “doing just as well, if not better, on Tuesday, and certainly better economically,” now that the expensive, fading Buffy has gone to her final reward. While spreading the comedy wealth makes sense, analysts note that UPN chose to launch the night with low-profile One on One rather than the more-proven The Parkers or Girlfriends. At 8:30 comes All of Us, inspired by the lives of exec producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Analysts approved the comedy about divorced parents and blended families.

However, things deteriorated after that in an hour for what Ostroff calls “the Caucasian demo.” Dan Cortese is a radio shock jock and new dad in 9 o’clock’s Rock Me Baby, which one observer thought an ill-suited vehicle. At 9:30, The Mullets is a lunkheaded, white-trash comedy that provoked laughs of the “I can’t believe they’re really doing this” variety at the upfront. Buyers joke that The Mullets will enter the UPN Hall of Fame alongside Homeboys From Outer Space and Shasta McNasty. “They have the right idea going with comedy on Tuesday, but they didn’t execute well,” says Breslowe. Others feel that if the net gets anything going on this night, it will be in better shape.

On Wednesday, Sternberg notes that the battered Enterprise will face stiff competition from Smallville; others say it’s unlikely that disaffected Trekkies will return to this tired franchise. At 9, after a string of failed sci-fi dramas, UPN comes up with a good one in Jake 2.0, about a government tech geek who gains powers after being infected with living computer chips—a cross between The Six Million Dollar Man and Spider-Man, according to Ostroff. Analysts think the show looks appealing, but say it’ll have a tough time up against Angel.

Thursday’s Smackdown! remains the netlet’s top show; insiders cite Tuesday-to-Thursday male flow and talk of cross-promoting wrestling and The Mullets. But analysts deem this another worn-down UPN warrior. “Wrestling’s time has come and gone,” says one. “That audience has narrowed to a real hard core and it’s not going to grow.” Moonves talks of someday putting series programming in place of the Friday movie, and even expanding to a new night, but UPN’s plate is full for now.



Eric Schmuckler is a contributing writer to Mediaweek.