All Quiet At Networks Ahead Of TV Upfront

With some $500 million expected to be redistributed among the six major broadcast networks in this year’s upfront buying season—in light of NBC’s prime-time nosedive and ABC’s bump upward—the nets were scrambling late last week to finalize their 2005-06 programming schedules, under tighter security than in recent memory.

“Last year, ABC and Fox had already sent us tapes of some of the shows that would be on their schedules,” said one media-agency executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This year, we’ve gotten no indication of what any of the networks are going to do.”

“CBS has been [keeping its new schedule under wraps until the official upfront presentation] for years, and now you are seeing the other networks do it, too,” said Preston Beckman, evp of strategic program planning at Fox. “We are not even going to say what we like or don’t like among our pilots. You’ll find out on Thursday when we make our presentation.”

Part of the added secrecy this year is that entertainment presidents Kevin Reilly at NBC, Steve McPherson at ABC and David Janollari at the WB will each be putting their respective network’s prime-time schedule together from their own development pools for the first time—adding pressure for them to produce. At Fox, Peter Liguori, who only last month replaced Gail Berman as entertainment president, will be selecting a schedule from her development slate, not his own. And with just four-tenths of a ratings point separating the Big Four networks in adults 18-49 as this season comes to a close, one or two successful shows next season could mean a big swing in ad dollars down the road.

Media agencies last week held back from cutting upfront deals with the major cable networks, choosing instead to see what broadcast will display this week. Agencies said some cable networks tried to spark a market but at prices the agencies weren’t willing to pay.

Despite all the advance secrecy, some networks say they will not be reticent to shift next season’s prime-time schedules around once they see what their rivals offer. “We’ll pick the shows and the schedule we want, but if we need to change it, we’ll change it,” said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television Group. This Thursday, NBC will be the first broadcast network to announce its 2005-06 schedule.

NBC, which took in $2.9 billion in last year’s upfront, is expected to lose the largest share of money that will shift this year. “We have to do better,” Zucker said.

NBC shows considered favorites to make the schedule include dramas E-Ring, a Jerry Bruckheimer vehicle about the Pentagon; Fathom, about mysterious ocean creatures; and Inconceivable, about a fertility clinic. Comedies likely to be added include Thick & Thin, about a once-heavy woman who loses weight, and Four Kings, about New York friends from childhood. Being discussed is moving Joey from Thursdays at 8 to Tuesdays, pairing it with Scrubs. Will & Grace is expected to take Joey’s Thursday slot, leading into Thick & Thin, followed by the new Martha Stewart incarnation of The Apprentice.

ABC is strongly considering new drama Invasion, about an alien takeover of a Florida town, for 8 p.m. Thursday. Other new dramas expected to make the schedule are Commander-in-Chief, with Geena Davis as the first female president; a remake of Night Stalker; and legal drama In Justice. New sitcoms under strong consideration at ABC include Emily’s Reasons Why Not, starring Heather Graham as a female author in search of love, and Play Dates, about three couples who meet in a baby class.

Fox dramas expected to make it include Reunion, which follows six high-schoolers from graduation to their 20th reunion; Prison Break, about a man who gets locked up to help his brother escape; and Bones, about a crime-solving female forensic anthropologist. New sitcoms likely to make the Fox schedule include Kitchen Confidential, centering around upscale New York restaurants; and The War at Home, about the struggle of parents raising teens.

Fox also plans to include an upfront segment on its Major League Baseball playoff telecasts. “Postseason baseball is the only thing that kept Fox afloat last fall,” said one Fox insider.

Best bets for making the WB schedule include new dramas Pepper Dennis, starring Rebecca Romijn as a Chicago TV reporter, and Supernatural, about two brothers seeking the forces responsible for their mother’s murder. Other dramas in the mix include Just Legal from Jerry Bruckheimer; Hailey’s Comet from David E. Kelley; and The Bedford Diaries from Tom Fontana. Likely new sitcoms include Twins, starring Sara Gilbert, and an untitled comedy starring Camryn Manheim as a single mom with three kids.