NEW YORK No media buyer really wants to guess what shows will hit or miss, based simply on seeing pilot clips. That said, trends did emerge from the upfronts earlier this month.
Geeks are in, as nerds take center stage in CBS' buddy sitcom The Big Bang Theory, NBC's comic spy drama Chuck and, of course, The CW's renewal of Beauty and the Geek. Sex and the City is all the rage, with ABC's Cashmere Mafia and NBC's Lipstick Jungle both hoping to cast themselves in Carrie Bradshaw's image, come midseason.
Perhaps ironically, traditional comedy reached a new nadir on network TV, with fewer sitcoms being ordered for the fall than for any season in recent memory. NBC, once the home of must-see comedy, ordered no fall sitcoms at all.
Consequently, drama continues to reign over the TV landscape. But following this past season's fiasco with serialized dramas, it's no surprise that most one-hour series for the fall boast close- ended formats. And after even successful serialized programs like ABC's Lost and NBC's Heroes suffered from viewer declines this spring, the shows that do contain continuous narratives will air in a more nonstop fashion next season.
Reality will see its fortunes rise as well. CBS adds an hour of unscripted to its schedule with Kid Nation, and Fox goes totally nonscripted on Thursdays and Fridays (Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, Kitchen Nightmares, The Search for the Next Great American Band and Nashville). Meanwhile, ABC's high-profile midseason series, Oprah's Big Give, waits in the wings.
Scripted or unscripted, scheduling fall shows always leaves networks either on brand or, in some cases, surprisingly off it. With series like Gossip Girl and Life Is Wild, The CW seems to restake its claim on young viewers. Other networks are trying to expand their demo base. CBS, for example, hopes to age down with shows like Viva Laughlin and midseason drama Swingtown. Fox, on the other hand, could age up with workplace sitcom Back to You.
Whatever ends up working next season, advertisers left upfront week with some degree of optimism. "There was a directness in the presentations this year that made it clear all of the networks have adjusted the way they introduce their product during upfront week, to make a stronger and more compelling show," says John Swift, managing director of PHD U.S. "It was a good week for TV."
After sitting through five network presentations in four days, buyers have a lot to say about the networks' new fall schedules. Let the playback begin.
Traditionally, last-place networks have taken the most risks with their fall schedules, picking up a wide range of new series in search of a hit. So NBC surprised many buyers when it announced it would pick up the least number of new shows. With renewals ordered for 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights, several advertisers pointed to past programs like Cheers and Seinfeld, which the network grew into massive hits over the course of several seasons.
"They could have scrapped more of their lineup, but this is a strategy that's worked for them before," says Brad Adgate, senior vp of research at Horizon Media. "I think their schedule not only addresses the issue of patience, but the shows they are bringing back also attract a desirable upper income audience, and that's of great appeal to advertisers."
Among NBC's most talked about scheduling moves was its decision not to program any new comedies next fall. "Clearly, what was most notable with NBC was what wasn't there," says John Rash, chief broadcast negotiator for Campbell Mithun.
Rash notes that the absence of new NBC sitcoms points both to the creative merits of existing sitcoms like The Office and My Name Is Earl, as well as just how difficult comedy development has become in general. "In a landscape where the audition segments of reality shows are played for laughs, and where Desperate Housewives wins an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy, the definition of comedy itself is undergoing significant shifts," Rash adds.
Part of the reason NBC's new program count may be low is that the network is sticking with low-cost nonscripted programming in the 8 o'clock hour on four out of five weekday nights: Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. One show that struck a chord with buyers was new Friday night entry The Singing Bee, in which contestants sing the lyrics of popular songs—without a song sheet. "I really liked this show, and I think it could be a sleeper," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, exec vp of Starcom Entertainment. "It's fun, it's relatable, and it's a good twist on the American Idol phenomenon."
Given the success of Heroes this season, it is perhaps no surprise that three of NBC's five new dramas use Heroes' high-concept log line as a jumping-off point for their own narratives: ordinary people in extraordinary situations. To wit: Journeyman's central character time travels; Chuck's lead geek finds himself imbued with top-secret military intel; and The Bionic Woman's title speaks for itself.
Despite any similarities, NBC's entertainment president Kevin Reilly took great pains to distinguish each show from the next. So did advertisers, who seem impressed with the quality of these programs. "Thematically, I think they're all very different," says Shari Anne Brill, vp, director of programming at Carat USA. "Chuck has a lot of humor, Bionic Woman is a coming-of-age story, much like Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] was, and Journeyman reminds me more of Quantum Leap than Heroes."
Still, most advertisers say NBC's scheduling strategy isn't likely to change its ranking next season. That is, unless a catastrophe on a competing network occurs. For example, if American Idol were to drop precipitously in the ratings. "To expect to get any more than two or three hits a year, tops, is a lot in this business," says PHD's Swift. "And with shows like Heroes, The Office, Deal or No Deal, I think NBC has accomplished that over the last couple of seasons. They're definitely on the right track." But as the fourth-highest rated among the four major networks, Swift says, it will take time for NBC to climb its way out of the basement. "I still think they have a long way to go."
ABC may be taking its greatest risk in launching an entirely new night of programming on Wednesdays—Pushing Daisies, Private Practice and Dirty Sexy Money. Of course, smack dab in the middle of that schedule is the Grey's Anatomy spinoff, Private Practice. And though some analysts might view launching three new shows as foolhardy, advertisers agree it's really not three shows that ABC is launching on the night.
"The one scheduling certitude this fall is Private Practice because it has built-in interest," says Campbell Mithun's Rash. "Securing known characters and known TV stars in an uncertain and cluttered media landscape gives Private Practice an advantage that few if any new series have coming into the season."
If there seems to be a misstep on ABC's schedule, it may well be its pursuit of the sitcom Cavemen. Based on the Geico ad campaign, the series revolves around three surviving Neanderthals navigating the modern world. Based on the clips that ABC showed advertisers, the series received one of the strongest thumbs-down of any series at any network.
"It appears to be a one-joke show, which never gets past that joke," says Lyle Schwartz, managing partner at Group M. All advertisers agree. "Oh, boy," says PHD's Swift. "From what I can tell, the pilot didn't capture some of the brilliance of the commercials."
Along with Cavemen, ABC also scheduled sitcoms Sam I Am and Carpoolers, the most new comedies picked up by any network for the fall. Yet buyer response to all three seems tentative; some advertisers like Sam, others don't. The same goes for Carpoolers. And with the network scheduling those three new sitcoms over returning ones, some buyers take note of that risk. "If viewers aren't receptive to these shows, ABC could be the first major network not to have a sitcom on its schedule by midseason," says Horizon's Adgate.
In contrast to comedy, ABC has one of the strongest alternative brands, with shows like Dancing With the Stars and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In fact, advertisers say Makeover's aspirational themes should carry over well to the network's latest reality entry, Oprah's Big Give. "ABC has got a pretty nice voice in reality. It works from an advertising perspective, and it seems to have some longevity," says PHD's Swift. "And how do you bet against Oprah?"
Clearly, the network's other strength is drama. And one of the strongest new entries next season may well be ABC's Thursday night series Big Shots, about four high-powered men. Positioned as sort of a male Sex and the City, with male stars (Dylan McDermott and Michael Vartan) who have a proven draw for women, most advertisers give it a thumbs-up. What's more, in a sea of shows revolving around women, "I think it's interesting to have a male POV show for women, to counter all the other stuff," says Caraccioli-Davis. "And it's a great fit with Grey's [Anatomy]."
In fact, whatever weaknesses might still appear on ABC's schedule—most notably Cavemen—most advertisers believe the network continues to set the bar high for itself and its competitors. "I think they're the leader, and I think it shows," says Swift. "They have a really great slate and a really good track record, in terms of pushing the envelope. When I think of ABC, I think of diverse, risk-taking, provocative drama. Some of it's going to hit, some of it is not going to hit. But ABC continues to build on its initial success of Lost and Desperate Housewives. They're still doing what they did to get to where they are."
With the most stable schedule of all the networks, CBS' goal going into the fall was to step out of the box, break the mold, push the envelope. But judging from advertisers' reactions, CBS may have pushed too far in some instances. Most notable among several potential missteps is the nonscripted entry Kid Nation, airing Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Even the tag line—40 Kids, 40 Days, No Parents—seems to have offended buyers. "I just don't know what CBS was thinking with this show," says Caraccioli-Davis. "You might expect something like this from Fox. You don't expect it from CBS."
Following the upfronts, CBS supplied advertisers with extended presentations of the program. But as a parent herself, Caraccioli-Davis says it was difficult to watch children ranging from ages 8 to 15 with no adult supervision, seemingly manipulated into situations where they face challenges beyond their age, and are given no tools to help them sort through things. "It looked like torture," she says.
She's not the only dissenter. "I'm a father of three kids, and I wouldn't leave them home alone for a night, let alone 40 days," says Group M's Schwartz. "Who knows, [Kid Nation] may be a very uplifting and positive show, but I didn't get that feeling."
In contrast, perhaps the brightest spot on CBS' slate of new programs is the Cuban-American family drama Cane, airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m. "The characters are strong, the storytelling is good and the writing is superb," Caraccioli-Davis says after viewing the full pilot. "I actually think it feels more like a Sunday night show. But up against Boston Legal and Law and Order: SVU, I think there will be an audience to watch it. The soap opera elements will attract CBS' core demo of older women, and the action will keep male viewers."
But question marks about CBS' new programs seem to outweigh support. Take Viva Laughlin, for example. Based on the BBC series Viva Blackpool and produced by feature film actor Hugh Jackman (who will occasionally guest star), the show is part crime drama and part musical, as it follows a wheeler-dealer who dreams of owning a Nevada casino.
The network already has tried to distance Laughlin from its only predecessor on TV—Steven Bochco's failed Cop Rock. But advertisers are hard-pressed not to make that connection, already believing the musical numbers may only distract from the story lines, rather than enhance them.
Airing Sundays at 8 p.m., there's also the challenge of audience flow. "Coming out of 60 Minutes, I'm not sure it will appeal to those viewers," Schwartz says. "Actually, I'm just not sure what audience this will appeal to."
Going even further into risky territory is the network's midseason drama Swingtown, a period piece exploring sexual liberation in 1970s suburbia. While clips of the pilot seem to have titillated some advertisers, most are taking a wait-and-see attitude, especially with content from which their clients might shy away. "It's not a show that will be family viewed," Schwartz jokes. "And with that tonality, a lot of advertisers would steer clear of content they might find objectionable."
Straying so far from the CBS wheelhouse has left advertisers at odds as to whether the network's development strategy will help or hurt CBS. "I think it's a step forward for the network," Caraccioli-Davis says. "They've reached the point where they have to grow the network. A way to do that is to bring new viewers in. And they're in a good place to try new things."
Others question if this crop of shows is too young for its target demo. "The CBS core viewer is loyal, and has helped propel CBS to where it is today," says Horizon Media's Adgate. "So the question is, at what point do you alienate that core viewer?"
At a time when comedy remains in decline, Fox's highest-profile show may well be its workplace sitcom, Back to You. Starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton as dueling news anchors, the series is set to air Wednesdays at 8 p.m., leading into Til Death. Most buyers agree the pairing makes perfect sense. Where some might see a flash of illogic is in the fact that both shows skew older than most Fox series.
But that may not be a bad thing. "As advertisers, you like to have networks reaching different segments of the population, so you can coordinate your media activity," says Schwartz. "Shows like this clearly separate Fox from The CW. Now they're able to compete for dollars in a different pool, more toward 18-49 than 18-34. It puts them right in the middle of ABC's and NBC's demos."
The network's two other new comedies won't make the schedule until midseason. Although sister/buddy sitcom, The Return of Jezebel James, from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, got mixed reviews from the crowd, the Farrelly brothers' relationship sitcom, The Rules for Starting Over, got raves. "It seemed right on brand," says Caraccioli-Davis.
After a tough season launching dramas for all the networks, Fox came to the upfronts with a diverse lineup of one-hours. Most prominent among them is the network's New Orleans-set series, K-Ville, airing Mondays at 9 p.m. The show takes a hard look at the city, post-Katrina, through the eyes of two cops. Buyers almost unanimously thought the program was well done. But after a season in which viewers turned away from serious fare like ABC's The Nine, some question if K-Ville can draw eyeballs. "The show has good writing, strong characters—all things that make for a quality drama," says Cara-ccioli-Davis. "I just don't know if we, as a nation, are ready to go back there."
But she does think viewers are ready for New Amsterdam, the network's new police drama with a supernatural twist—the lead cop is immortal. "It's well done and easy to watch," Caraccioli-Davis says. "The episodes are self-contained, so Fox can move it around on the schedule. I think it has the potential to be their Law & Order."
Airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m., New Amsterdam leads into House. As the network's top scripted hit, several advertisers question why Fox isn't using the medical drama in a more strategic fashion. "I would have liked to have seen a bold move by Fox, in moving House to Thursdays," says Horizon's Adgate.
Instead, Fox has decided to counter-program the night with nonscripted series Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader and Hell's Kitchen spinoff Kitchen Nightmares. "In their own way, they are being aggressive on the night," says Magna Global's vp and director of audience analysis Lisa Quan. "With [CBS'] Survivor declining, I think they're in a position to make inroads there with nonscripted programs."
Buyers also are debating Fox's nonscripted plans for Friday nights, with contest show The Search for the Next Great American Band and docu-soap Nashville. The two shows' focus on music would seem to indicate that the network is targeting its core demo. But, as Group M's Schwartz believes, "Younger people aren't home on Fridays."
Then, there's the issue of flow. While The Search for the Next Great American Band would appear to target a broad audience, advertisers say Nashville's focus may be a bit narrower. But is it too narrow?
Not for Magna's Quan. "I don't know that it's out of Fox's target demo. They're just looking for a younger viewer who happens to be in a region that's not on either coast," she says. "Nashville is a big city, and it's representative of that part of the country. There are plenty of 18-34-year-olds there who have plenty of money to spend."
Of all the networks that presented at the upfronts, The CW received the most glowing reviews from advertisers. After this past season, during which The CW mostly relied on shows from The WB and UPN following the merger of those two networks, buyers saw The CW's fall schedule as a major step forward. "Last year, they didn't really try anything new," says Magna's Quan. "This time around, it looks like they have programs they can build on."
That same sentiment was repeated by almost every advertiser. "I don't think there was any other network developing shows that were so right for who they are and who they target," says Starcom's Caraccioli-Davis.
First and foremost among The CW's new programs is Gossip Girl, airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Based on the series of young adult novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, the drama looks at a group of privileged Manhattan teens. Where The WB developed a signature show in the teen soap Dawson's Creek, many buyers see Gossip Girl as The CW's updated equivalent.
In fact, as much as buyers liked Gossip Girl's clips, they were equally impressed with the network's plans for the show's digital extensions, which executives also presented to advertisers at the upfronts. "With all the talk of multiscreen integration and following viewers wherever they are, The CW is the first network to take that talk and turn it into reality," says PHD's Swift.
Another signature WB series was family drama 7th Heaven, which finished its run on The CW earlier this season. Buyers believe The CW may have found its replacement with Life Is Wild, a family drama set in picturesque South Africa, airing Sundays at 8 p.m. Like 7th Heaven, "this looks like it could play on both sides of the demo scale," says Swift.
Among the network's riskiest moves is the hour preceding Life Is Wild, where The CW will try out two teen-targeted half-hour magazine shows: Online Nation and CW Now. While Online Nation plans to cull the best of the Web for its viewers, CW Now will cull the latest trends in fashion, music and entertainment. "I think it's a smart move," says Horizon's Adgate. "Maybe they can get some appointment viewing on a night that's been tough for them."
What's also been tough for The CW is comedy. Two seasons ago, UPN launched the Chris Rock-produced Everybody Hates Chris, which kicked off that network's Thursday night schedule. When it moved to The CW, it was grouped along with the network's African-American targeted sitcoms on Sundays. The entire block was then moved to Mondays. None of those schedules worked to the show's benefit. But now, buyers think the network may have found a companion in Aliens in America, airing Mondays at 8:30 p.m. The series revolves around a Pakistani exchange student, and would seem to skew broad, as does Everybody Hates Chris. "It's a good premise, and I liked what I saw," says Adgate. "I think it's very compatible with Chris."
Perhaps most surprising on The CW's schedule is the quirky supernatural drama Reaper, airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. With filmmaker Kevin Smith (Clerks) directing the pilot and exec producing the series, Reaper revolves around a 20-year-old who discovers his parents sold his soul to the devil at the time of his birth. "It looked very funny, with the type of offbeat humor Kevin Smith is known for," says Magna's Quan. "With this show, I think The CW may be able to bring in some younger males."
All in all, buyers are extremely buoyant about The CW. "In getting rid of shows like Veronica Mars and 7th Heaven, they had to put shows on to rebrand the network," Adgate says. "And they did just that."