Buyers See Few Breakout Shows at Network Upfront

Buyers and advertisers were underwhelmed by the 28 new shows for the 2003-04 fall season unveiled by the broadcast networks last week, and the ones that proved most popular will not appear until next year.

ABC’s Kingdom Hospital, a 15-episode series written and created by novelist Stephen King, was one favorite, but it will not debut until January. “Stephen King has obvious star power, and his involvement suggests high quality,” one media buyer said at ABC’s upfront party at Cipriani’s in Manhattan. “As for the rest of the schedule, there’s not much to say.”

The other hot show that is not scheduled for the fall is NBC’s The Tracy Morgan Show, starring the Saturday Night Live alumnus. The sitcom, slated as a midseason replacement, is about a childish family man and his idiosyncratic crisis-management skills at home and work.

“It looks like one of the funniest, freshest comedies. It’s a real mystery why it wasn’t put on the schedule,” said Lee Doyle, Mediaedge:cia managing partner, director of client services.

While no breakout hits were forecast, buyers believe CBS and the WB offered the best-quality new programming, and that Fox has finally come up with several “Fox brand” sitcoms and dramas, notably comedian Norm MacDonald’s A Minute With Stan Hooper.

They also noted that ABC has a couple of new shows that will help to fill some holes.

There was general skepticism about NBC’s two new Tuesday-night sitcoms, Whoopi and Happy Family, but most believe the Peacock’s sexually explicit sitcom, Coupling, will be a good leadout from Will & Grace on Thursday night.

Several advertisers noted that more shows are emphasizing multicultural casts, in particular action-oriented shows such as CBS’ The Handler, featuring former Sopranos star Joe Pantoliano as a detective who trains a team of undercover cops.

“The census numbers regarding the rising population of Hispanics seem to have influenced the networks—some more than others,” said Brad Adgate, svp, director of research for Horizon Media. “NBC seems to have the least shows geared toward that group, although because they own Telemundo, they might feel they don’t have to.”

Inevitably, despite the feeling among media buyers that the broadcast upfront presentations failed to offer potential hit shows for next season, by Friday the major agencies were already aggressively trying to be the first to get their clients’ ad dollars locked in for an upfront that will exceed last year’s $8.2 billion haul by anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion, depending on whether it is a buyer or a seller making the prediction.

“The Big Three agencies [Omnicom’s OMD, Interpublic Group’s Magna Global and WPP Group’s Group M] have so much money to spend that the last to get their money down runs the risk of not getting some preferred time slots for their clients,” noted one network executive.

Sources said one early deal under way was between OMD and Viacom Plus. Sources said a key segment of the deal involves OMD client McDonald’s desire to buy significant time on Viacom-owned MTV as a way to target a younger audience. A Viacom Plus representative denied that a deal is in the works.