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The 2013-14 Upfront

Buyers Enthusiastic About Fall TV Prospects

Agency reps encouraged by strong outings from Fox, NBC

Sleepy Hollow

With the first day of Upfronts Week on the books, there’s a palpable sense that the networks have come a long way toward redeeming themselves after last year’s lousy development slate.

Speaking to media buyers at the Fox post-show party at Wollman Rink in Central Park, one couldn’t help but feel more than a little optimistic about the state of the 2013-14 broadcast schedule. Much of the talk under the tent had to do with Fox’s apparent triumph on the drama front, as buyers eagerly talked up the trailers for newbies Sleepy Hollow, Rake, Almost Human and Gang Related.

“Sleepy Hollow is the most interesting new series I’ve seen so far,” remarked one national TV buyer, who said he’d reserve final judgment until after he has had a chance to review the ABC, CBS and CW presentations. “There was so much going on in that clip—the flashbacks to the Revolutionary War, the present-day cop stuff, the cool slow-motion decapitation—that it almost felt like you were watching a trailer for three different shows.”

Another buyer said that what had seemed like “a goofy premise” when summarized in the show’s log line seemed to hold up really well onscreen. “I mean, we’ll see when we get the pilots,” he said. “A lot of these shows look great when we see them during the upfronts, and you get to episode three and it’s like, ‘What happened?’”

Judging by the applause that bounced off the ornate ceiling of the Beacon Theatre following each drama clip, Fox may have gone a long way toward making clients forget The Mob Doctor. J.J. Abrams’ paranoid android police drama Almost Human was received with particular enthusiasm, and Greg Kinnear’s mordantly funny fuck-up (Rake) was a nod to the all-messed-up-with-no-place-to-go anti-heroes that are Fox’s stock in trade.

Shot through with the sunny, scummy L.A. street vibe of theatricals like Training Day and End of Watch, Gang Related could prove to be the season’s biggest draw among young males. Again, the proof will be in how the pilots scan and whether Fox can build off the first 48 minutes of each opener. But as one partygoer remarked, the broadcaster has put together a drama slate that, at first blush, promises to be as dynamic as that of its formidable cable sibling. 

“Some of the new Fox shows look like you could put them alongside the great FX dramas,” said one buyer. “Maybe it’s just how well they cut the trailers, but these shows look like they have a lot to offer.”

As Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly said at the top of Monday’s show, Fox is spending more money than ever on original programming, loading up on 11 new series and a pair of limited “event series.” In yet another nod to the cable model, Fox plans to air single-season narratives that will run around 13 episodes, ensuring they’ll have access to top-flight talent that may not necessarily want to get locked into a 22- or 23-installment broadcast contract.

Among the first stabs at the limited series model will be a reboot of 24 and the self-contained M. Night Shyamalan fable, Wayward Pines. Future installments of the new programming format will include an update of James Clavell’s Shōgun and an adaptation of Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

For all the comparisons to cable, let it be known that Reilly isn’t entirely blown away by the competition’s track record. “The quality of original programming in basic cable is really noteworthy, and it’s something we’re competing with,” Reilly said earlier in the day. “But you also have to keep some perspective. Last season, there were 1,050 basic-cable series on the air; of those, only four cracked the top 50.”

On the comedy front, Reilly said he expected that the new Tuesday night sitcoms Dads and Brooklyn Nine-Nine “are going to be a little easier to launch” than his beloved Ben and Kate, which was canceled after its maiden voyage.

“I loved Ben and Kate. I’ll speak for myself—I think my love for it maybe wasn’t as objective about our ability to launch it,” Reilly said, adding that the star power of Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi (Dads) and Andre Braugher and Andy Samberg (B99) should make the two new comedies an easier sell.

Fox’s fall schedule is much more stable than the one stitched together by NBC. Having renewed just two freshman series (Revolution and Chicago Fire) and five legacy shows, NBC is sending an unambiguous message to the buying community. This season’s results were largely built on the success of Sunday Night Football and entertainment president Bob Greenblatt’s casting move, in which he booked fall and spring flights of The Voice, and that’s not going to be enough to sustain the Peacock in the upcoming season.

To that end, NBC is aggressively courting the middle of the middle-of-the-road, junking its glib Thursday night comedy lineup for broad, family-friendly fare like The Michael J. Fox Show, Welcome to the Family and Sean Saves the World.

Radio City Music Hall cheered the MJF trailer, which had its share of genuinely funny moments. (While some viewers may be uncomfortable with the jokes about the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, the actor’s perseverance in the face of his neurological disorder is truly remarkable. Besides, who doesn’t love Michael J. Fox?)

The upfront crowd was particularly receptive to the charms of the Mike O’Malley comedy, Welcome to the Family, while the organic laughter generated by Sean Hayes’ slapstick in the Sean Saves the World clip was drowned out by a maniacal laugh track. WTF reads like a vastly smarter take on CBS’ doomed 2011-12 comedy ¡Rob!, and Hayes is indefatigable in his desire to entertain. After a season of delivering sub-1.5 ratings in the dollar demo, NBC genuinely appears to have an opportunity to draw a crowd on the night most coveted by movie studios.

While it’s understandable why Greenblatt would be a bit leery of early testing results—early Q scores for Crystal the capuchin monkey indicated that Animal Practice would be the runaway hit of this past season—the results for the James Spader drama The Blacklist are nothing to sneeze at. The programming chief told buyers that the new crime thriller out-tested NBC’s last 125 drama pilots, making it the network’s best-received one-hour show in a decade.

The Blacklist will enjoy the benefit of having The Voice as a Monday night lead-in, which could go a long way toward establishing it as the must-see drama of the fall. But buyers also responded well to Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ turn as the legendary bloodsucker Dracula and J.J. Abrams’ telekinetic thriller Believe, which seems to share a fair amount of genetic material with Stephen King’s Firestarter.

“You look at the stuff we’ve seen over the last few hours and it just feels like [NBC and Fox] made huge strides in their development,” said a buyer after the Peacock’s pitch. “Already, there are a couple of shows that, at least from where I’m sitting, look like they have what it takes to attract a big audience. There may be a few breakout hits in there.”

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