Broadcast networks full of drama at upfronts

May 20, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The smell of fall was in the air across midtown Manhattan last week as the broadcast networks unveiled their 2002-03 season schedules for the assembled advertisers at lavish upfront presentations that ranged from the triumphal (NBC) to the apologetic (ABC).
The programming trends: more one-hour dramas, especially at CBS; a return to the 1960s, dramatically at NBC, with “American Dreams,” and comedically at Fox, with “Oliver Beene”; more reality and more hybrids, with “Push, Nevada” on ABC, which combines a viewer game with a scripted thriller, and “Meet the Marks” on Fox, which could have been pitched as “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment” meets extreme “Candid Camera.”
This fall, two series go back in time so lead characters can undo past mistakes, two doctor shows with similar names go up against each other, Fox goes for laughs on Sundays and CBS goes for a new Michael Mann series, “RHD/LA,” at his old “Miami Vice” haunt on Fridays at 10 p.m.
NBC may have three “Law & Orders,” but this fall CBS will have two “CSIs.” Last season was marked by two haves and two have-nots, as CBS’s (and UPN’s) Leslie Moonves put it. By necessity, the riskiest scheduling moves are at ABC and Fox, the have-nots of this past season. The Alphabet Network is putting on untried series at 8 p.m. every weeknight, and Fox, though protecting its new shows with proven 8 p.m. lead-ins, is replacing a full 71/2 hours of its current schedule.
Perhaps the single-most unfortunate scheduling move will result in the coming ratings battle between Fox’s Bernie Mac and ABC’s Damon Wayans, forcing viewers to choose between two of the best shows with African American leads among the small handful now on broadcast television. Fox’s Gail Berman, though, in announcing the move of the “The Bernie Mac Show” opposite “My Wife and Kids,” made certain to take careful note of the research that shows the two series have “surprisingly little” audience duplication.
Upfront week featured warm embraces (for everything from the heroes of 9/11 during CBS’s presentation to “The Simpsons” and “24’s” Kiefer Sutherland during Fox’s), cool receptions (for everything from ABC’s “horizontal” promotions ploy) and spontaneous giggles (to the idea of actress Tiffani Thiessen as the “boss” of an undercover police duo in Fox’s “Fastlane”).
A network by network look at the highs and the lows of upfront 2002 follows:
The facts: Three new comedies, four new dramas. Saturday and Sunday return intact.
The themes: We’re not sinking any lower, but we’re not raising expectations. (“I think the advertising community is much more patient than the press, to be honest,” said ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne at an early-morning press conference. “I would just beg a little patience from you guys.”) Comedies are two-for-one during the 8-to-9 o’clock weeknight “Happy Hour,” which will be heavily promoted all summer.
Let’s go to the videotape: ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun showed previously unnoticed comedy chops in a setup for “The Bachelor II.” “Alex, we’ve gotta start seeing other bachelors,” he says over “dinner” to original “Bachelor” Alex Michel.
We don’t need no stinking data: “You’re not going to see a lot of numbers today,” Mr. Braun said. “You know and we know they are not what they should be.”
The 9/11 factor: Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson talk about how they felt on Sept. 11 instead of how “Good Morning America” has gotten its livelier and more competitive act together.
The taunts (or, “Who are you kidding?”): Following an introductory video that includes multiple clips of his appearances on “Late Show With David Letterman” (“We finally got David Letterman to do something for us,” Ms. Lyne said), new late-night hire Jimmy Kimmel launches a killer comedy attack on ABC icons (“Please, do not breathe a word of this to Ted Koppel”; “Susan, Lloyd, it is unlikely either of you will be here when the show launches”) and endears himself to everyone else. Mr. Koppel will display exquisite comic timing a short time later, when he drolly declares “Nightline’s” new slogan will be “More Relevant Than Ever.” “Monday Night Football’s” Al Michaels offers half his frequent-flier miles to his flight-phobic new boothmate John Madden.
Back-to-back programming: Family-style fare is back on the network that dumped its money-magnet family franchise to chase singles-style sitcoms of the type NBC has churned out so easily. John Ritter puts a reassuring edge on the punch lines in “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter.” “Dinotopia” is back to compete with “Survivor” and “Friends.” “Millionaire” goes back to its event-programming roots. “NYPD Blue” is back at 10 p.m. Tuesdays. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is back. Even “Dragnet” is back after “Monday Night Football” ends at midseason. This time, “Law & Order” producer Dick Wolf will be ripping inspiration from the lurid headlines in Los Angeles newspapers. Where’s my hit man-slash-limo driver, dude? Bonnie Hunt is back with a self-produced and -written sitcom in which she looks and sounds remarkably like Florence Henderson. Can her actor side take that up with her writer-producer side? Ben Affleck couldn’t get “The Runner” on the air last year, but he’s back with a drama-cum-game of clues titled “Push, Nevada.” And can Eric Roberts become the “Murphy Brown” of the 2002-03 season with “Less Than Perfect”?
The show must go on and on: How could less than two hours feel like so much more?
The facts: Five new dramas, two new comedies. Tuesday returns intact.
The themes: Confidence and testosterone, confidence and action, confidence with another “CSI,” confidence and combustible action-drama stars (Tom Sizemore, David Caruso), confidence and comedies following that old laff riot “60 Minutes” (Alfred Molina is back in “Bram and Alice”), confidence and a new Monday night comedy that touched numerous funnybones at Carnegie Hall. “We are invincible,” CBS President Les Moonves said. “Our presentation today is asterisk-free.” CBS is ungraying its audience.
Let’s go to the videotape: Mr. Moonves is a hit with his rendition of how CBS convinced David Letterman not to move to ABC (groveling and a truckload of money), and who was considered as backups (Richard Hatch, naked again; Ozzy Osbourne, half-naked again; former President Bill Clinton, never mind).
Ho, ho, hum: David Letterman’s surprise appearance on stage (a squirrel joke, a Fidel Castro joke, an “I want to find out what this year’s `Wolf Lake’ is going to be”) proves to be so disappointing that even he’s panning it on his show at the end of the day.
The taunts: The crowd at Carnegie Hall roots for the warm-up act, the Soggy Bottom Suits, who drawl new blood with verses of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” aimed at the competition. “I’ll know my ABCs before ABC gets a hit,” sneers Baby Bob, whose comedy is scheduled to return in midseason. “Scrubs” gets credit for having retained fewer “Friends” viewers than the canceled “Leap of Faith” or “Inside Schwartz.”
Say what? Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone and President Mel Karmazin are “not freaked out by the bottom line,” Mr. Moonves said.
Seeing unexpected stars: Celine Dion drops by to sing. Mary Tyler Moore drops by to reminisce. “Survivor” survivors drop by to remind advertisers to tune in to Sunday’s live finale.
The 9/11 factor: Nobody does it better during upfront week. “Let us be clear: It is not about us,” Dan Rather said early in the presentation, which ended with two standing ovations and not a dry eye in the house as the network paid tribute to Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the French filmmakers whose little documentary became the big hit “9/11.”
The show must go on and on: This 21/2 hours goes by quickly.
The facts: Three new comedies, two new dramas. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday return intact.
The themes: We’re No. 1. We’re 75 years old. We’re big enough to poke fun at ourselves. Or pretend to poke fun at ourselves. “Quality,
stability and `Fear Factor,’ the new NBC.”
Let’s go to the videotape: Is Jeff Zucker the next Les Moonves? Or the next Flo Ziegfeld? After the video in which NBC stars pretend to audition for a really big show ordered up by NBC Entertainment President Zucker (in front of a computer screensaver that says, “It’s the ratings, stupid”), the stars hit the stage of Radio City Music Hall with a song-and-dance revue and a cast of what seemed like thousands of NBC casts: “Scrubs” in every color of the Peacock! “West Wingers” bumping, grinding and tapping. “Ed’s” Tom Cavanaugh trilling, “Will & Grace’s” Will crooning and “Law & Order’s” Jesse Martin almost convincing us that NBC measures a year in “Seasons of Love” instead of ratings and young and upscale demos.
The 9/11 factor: OK, NBC was the first network to present and make the obligatory and sometimes awkward references. West Coast Chairman Scott Sassa, who seemed to be saying some goodbyes (NBC Chairman Bob Wright is acknowledged, NBC President Andy Lack is not) and polishing up his resume – he was the only network executive all week to note his association with the all-star telethon that got unprecedented cooperation from a wide array of networks and their executives.
The taunts: A “Fear Factor” spoof required NBC sales contestants to hop from the NBC boat to the driverless and sinking ABC boat that had been christened the S.S. David Letterman and crudely rechristened the S.S. Koppel. Even more vicious are the sketch jokes at NBC executives’ expense. “SNL’s” Tina Fey says NBC will replace its bygone sports with “weekly fights between Bob Wright and Andy Lack.” “Scott, on your way out, gimme a Porsche,” Jimmy Fallon pleads to Mr. Sassa. After noting that “Today” anchor Katie Couric gets paid as much as five Matt Lauers, Ms. Fey joked that she personally “would rather see … five Matt Lauers.”
Men. Go figure: Gay and straight men seemed smitten with “American Dreams,” which is pretty sentimental fare. Some of the same straight men also seemed drawn to “Hidden Hills,” in which a suburban mom with a porn Web site helps coach the kids’ softball team. The predictable male fantasies ensued. Repeatedly.
Meanwhile … : “Kingpin” looks like a limited-run “Traffic” and looks likely to drive advertisers away. There’s to be a two-hour finale for “Friends” next year. “Good Morning Miami,” from the team behind “Will & Grace,” gives Mark Feuerstein another crack at NBC’s Thursday lineup.
The show must go on and on: Even though it was relatively data-free – “1,” “18-49” and “$75K” don’t count – the show clocked in at about 2 hours and 6 minutes. Right around 6 p.m., Mr. Zucker said, “I promise you we’re all about to get out.” But by then, Mother Nature had whipped up enough wind and rain to redefine the word “sloshed” for post-presentation partygoers who wet their feet while wetting their whistles.
The facts: Five new dramas, three new scripted comedies, two unscripted comedy-reality hybrids. Saturday returns intact. More than half of prime time is new and/or rearranged.
The themes: Quality, quality, quality, quality, quality was the most frequently heard word. “Love Cruise”-style reality programming is out, “advertiser-friendly” unscripted programming that gives real people a chance to be a star or a fool is in. Patience pays. “We think we’re nurturing a long-term asset,” said Entertainment President Gail Berman of sophomore sitcom “Grounded for Life.” Patience produces “audience profile” improvements. The 2002 rollout will last until 2003 – after the fat lady has sung off the baseball season, the November sweeps and perhaps even the December holidays. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are expected to launch before the World Series; Sunday and Monday afterward. Hmmmmm. Last year’s delays bad. This year’s delays good. If you say so.
Let’s go to the videotape: After suffering domestic box office and Oscar disappointments, “Moulin Rouge” becomes the butt of its stablemate’s show-opening joke: “What are we, The History Channel?” asks John Nesvig, the Fox Broadcasting sales president and poor man’s Nicole Kidman, who makes his entrance on a swing. Fox Sports Chairman David Hill is a poor man’s Dame Edna in a video that follows the Fox Sports Chairman and President Ed Goren as they try to recoup the $900 million sports write-down by any means necessary, from hooking to hawking Fox watches on the street, from mugging little old ladies to playing Latin American roots music on the sidewalk. “Lost our asses in sports,” says their panhandlers’ sign.
The taunts: In a cameo, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes wishes Mr. Hill and Mr. Goren “good luck in prison.”
It worked for “Boston Public”: As he did two years ago, producer David E. Kelley makes up for lack of a pilot by personally pitching “Girls Club,” the show that inherits the “Ally McBeal” time slot and introduces the cast that will play three waif-thin San Francisco lawyers and longtime friends.
It worked for Ed O’Neill: With “The Grubbs,” Randy Quaid threatens to become the new Al Bundy and take underachievement to new levels. “The Bernie Mac Show” pits his TV wife and sister’s kids against Damon Wayans’ TV “Wife and Kids.”
The show must go on and on: Some 90 minutes into the presentation, a second wave of attendees is exiting the theater. Approaching the two-hour mark, Ms. Berman said, “Let’s take another look at the schedule.” Patience, indeed.
The facts: Two new dramas, one new comedy. Two nights intact: “WWE Smackdown” Thursday and Friday movies.
The themes: The “fastest-growing” 18-to-34 network, with “breakthrough drama” (“Haunted” and a new “Twilight Zone”), “untamed comedy” (“Half and Half”) and “powerful franchise series.”
The promise: UPN, which has a new and well-rounded logo, accused its next two targets, Fox and ABC, of having “disenfranchised” their 18-to-34-year-old audiences.
Let’s go to the videotape: Not. It was all business – almost.
Women rule: Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff, who came to UPN from Lifetime, said, “Everybody asked me how I could go from programming a network for women to overseeing the testosterone-fueled UPN. I told them all two things: The first is that UPN is not the male-only network that everyone thinks it is. … The second thing I told them is that UPN isn’t really all that different from Lifetime. I still get to develop programs about strong and inspiring women who deal with weighty issues. Of course, on UPN the issues are a tad different. The women on our shows are either saving the world from vampires, exploring far reaches of the galaxy or body-slamming men twice their size.”
The synergy: How integrated are CBS and UPN? CBS ad chief Joe Abruzzese, in his second on-stage appearance of the week, gave a tip of the fedora to Paramount’s “Godfather” franchise, calling UPN ad chief Mike Mandelker his “wartime consigliere.”
The moment of irony: Said Mr. Mandelker: “`Enterprise’ has gone where no other UPN show has gone before – second year.”
The taunts: It’s time to leave The WB “in the dust for good,” CBS and UPN CEO Les Moonves said. “Instead of picking on NBC and ABC, it is a pleasure to be taking a shot at The WB.”
The moment that even Les Moonves found hard to believe: Mr. Moonves offers his “props” to his “dog,” after being introduced as Leslie “Mix Master” Moonves by DJ Jazzy Jeff.
The show must go on and on: If you are first up on the last day of upfront week, speed is a virtue. UPN’s presentation clocked in at 57 minutes, by far the shortest of the broadcast networks, which meant drinks and lunch by 11 a.m. Talk about advertiser-friendly.
The WB
The facts: Two new dramas, four new comedies. Tuesday returns intact.
The themes: “Watch the Frog.” Second-chance Sundays with repeats of “Smallville,” freshman “Everwood,” “Gilmore Girls: Beginnings” and new time slots for “Charmed” and “Angel.”
We are family-oriented: “Buffy is back on The WB, and she is bringing Jody with her,” sa
id Tim Curry, who’ll play Mr. French in the remake of “Family Affair.” “What I Like About You” casts Nickelodeon graduate Amanda Bynes as Jennie Garth’s sister. “Greetings From Tucson” is inspired by the upbringing of producer Peter Murrieta by his Mexican-American father and Irish-American mother. “Do I tell you how to play with yourself?” says the father when his time-traveling, wiser-than-his-years teenage son offers relationship advice in the half-hour “Do Over,” which appears to have more heart and laughs than ABC’s startlingly similar hour-long “That Was Then.”
This year’s “24”: Critics are poised to lavish praise on “Everwood,” which will air Mondays after “7th Heaven” and again at 6 p.m. Sundays and will feature Treat Williams as a freshly widowed doctor and single father trying to reconnect with his children.
This year’s “Dark Angel”: Fox’s genetically engineered “Dark Angel” is gone. Enter the daughter of comic book heroes Batman and Catwoman, who will be mentored by a wheelchair-bound Batgirl in “Birds of Prey.”
Let’s go to the videotape: The netlet opens with its standard star montage with ear-drumming music.
Moving right along: As always, the ballroom is packed and the presentation is packed with percentages, demos, charts and data-driven talking points. (Scatter sales made fourth quarter 2001 The WB’s “best revenue quarter ever,” said media sales chief Bill Morningstar.) “I’ve heard what you want: no bells and whistles,” said Entertainment President Jordan Levin. “There will be no dancing.” Leading the traditional parade of WB stars are giggly “Gilmore Girls” and breakout prankster Jamie Kennedy, who is often as unintelligible as Ozzy Osbourne. On close inspection, at least two WB starlets appear to be naked under their sheer frocks.
The show must go on and on: See ABC.#