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Upfront Programming Report 2010

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With no Hollywood strikes, no networks trying alternative business models (like NBC’s failed Jay Leno experiment five nights a week last season) and an ad economy seemingly on the mend, none of the  major networks skimped on prime-time program development for the 2010-2011 fall season. But media buyers and program analysts say the results are mixed.

On the plus side, many executives reached for this story note that ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW all have one or two shows with breakout potential. The flip side: No single show looks to be a big hit right out of the box like Modern Family was last year for ABC.

“Everybody’s got a couple of good singles to talk about but not a big home run,” says Don Seaman, vp and director of communications analysis at Havas’ MPG. Bill Carroll, vp programming, Katz Television Group, agrees. “There are a lot of potentials,” he says. But he adds that forecasting the bona fide hits is harder given all the schedule changes for next season.

One surprise, given that imitation often lies at the core of program development efforts: The networks avoided overtly duplicating two of last year’s biggest hits, Modern Family and Fox’s Glee. “I think part of it is an indication of just how difficult those formats are to develop,” notes Carroll. “But there also seemed to be enough creativity and confidence by the networks” in their development pipelines that they didn’t feel the need to resort to copycatting.

That said, there wasn’t a lot of format experimentation either. Last season, Modern Family was hailed for its docu-comedic approach to storytelling, a new twist on the sitcom format. “I would say it was a very traditional development season,” explains Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at Horizon Media. “The networks spent a lot of money, but there were no breakout formats. The trends this year are familiar—law enforcement and the obligatory twentysomething ensemble comedies with lots of good-looking people navigating romance,” alongside other issues.

Generally speaking, buyers and analysts believe this season’s crop of sitcoms doesn’t look particularly distinctive. “Many of the comedies look similar,” says Maureen Bosetti, evp of national broadcast director at Publicis Groupe’s Optimedia, “like they’re trying to be Friends 10 years later.”

Another surprise, buyers note, is the lack of serialized anthology-type dramas on the new slates to replace the ones leaving the schedules, including NBC’s Heroes, ABC’s Lost and Fox’s 24. While NBC’s new The Event offers one exception, “that’s a void they decided not to fill,” says Adgate, and something of a strategic shift given that until recently the networks suggested “that that was kind of the way of the future,” he adds.

Bosetti’s reasoning: Such fare was deemed too risky in light of the failure of FlashForward on ABC this past season, and the networks’ decision to make safer bets tied to more traditional drama formulas.

Bottom line: CBS is poised to repeat as the total viewer leader next season. “It will be tough to knock them off,” says Adgate. “They helped themselves,” both with development and scheduling moves.

But as to attracting that key demo of adults 18-49, a contest that Fox has won for the last six seasons, it’s anybody’s guess. The X-Factor: the dwindling American Idol, Fox’s choice to replace departing judge Simon Cowell (who will host The X-Factor on Fox in fall 2011) and audience reaction to the replacement. “It all comes down to the post-Simon Idol,” says Seaman. “That will be the story of next season.”

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