ABC Reinventing `TGIF’

May 12, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC is bringing back its “TGIF”-branded four-comedy block on Friday nights this fall, when the network expects to have no fewer than 10 comedies in its lineup.
Bringing back “TGIF” is one of several major strategy shifts the network is expected to announce this week when it lays out plans to rebuild its lineup during its Upfront presentation to advertisers. ABC also is mulling moving the Wonderful World of Disney movie franchise from Sunday to Saturday to make room for a more compatible lead-in to Alias, and it has planned a heavy rotation this summer of reruns of the six sitcoms it has already renewed.
“As Lloyd [Braun, ABC Entertainment chairman] and I go around talking to colleges and groups of people the one thing they unanimously remember fondly about ABC is `TGIF,”’ ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne told TelevisionWeek. “They all grew up with it. Almost to a person they say they miss it. It is something that will go a long way toward re-establishing ABC as a brand.” Although ABC has been talking since last year about looking to its past to find its way back to ratings success, the new “TGIF” lineup is expected to be hipper than the sitcoms that defined the night for millions of families, including Full House, which gave the world the Olsen twins, and Family Matters, which gave the world Urkel.
ABC is likely to move an established comedy to Fridays to launch the block. One of the most obvious candidates is Wednesday night series George Lopez.
“Thank Goodness It’s Funny” was branded and launched in the fall of 1989 by then-ABC Entertainment President (and now Disney President) Bob Iger. It was dominant in the 18-49 demo for most of the ’90s, helping to make the decade a good one for 20/20, which has struggled increasingly since losing its “TGIF” lead-in.
When ABC axed “TGIF,” The WB stepped in and picked up one of its cornerstones, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, to launch its own comedy night. Ms. Lyne said there’s room on the night for more comedies.
“[The WB] plays to a very specific audience and `TGIF’ for the major part of its existence was really a family programming night,” she said. “It was not just teen-agers. I think we can do broader-based comedies there than what The WB has put on.”
In place of Wonderful World of Disney, ABC would likely go to an all-series lineup on Sundays. The theatrical movie ABC traditionally airs Saturday evenings would then move to Monday, following football in January. That would help solve the perennial problem of programming the post-NFL time slot.
The six sitcoms due to get some extra summer exposure are 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, According to Jim, Life With Bonnie, Less than Perfect, My Wife and Kids and George Lopez.
“There’s an opportunity for us to get an audience used to seeing comedies in a certain time period on ABC,” Ms. Lyne said.
Monday nights will turn into sitcom marathon nights for six weeks this summer, Mr. Braun said. Each Monday, ABC will air four episodes of the same sitcom from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
ABC executives weren’t having a “TGIF” kind of night last Friday, when they were unable by sundown to make the decision on which new shows to pick up. Nor had they made decisions on whether to pick up iffy freshman Dragnet or struggling veteran The Practice, which fell on bad ratings times when it was moved to Mondays to add Dragnet to the lineup in midseason.
ABC brass has reason to schedule carefully. The decisions they make will be pivotal to the network’s attempts at a turnaround.
ABC indeed could use a ratings infusion. Three years ago, propelled by the breakout success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, ABC finished the season No. 1 in adults 18 to 49. It experienced a reversal of fortune the next season, plummeting to fourth place by the end of the 2001-02 season, after network executives threw caution to the wind and made the unfortunate decision to put on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire four nights a week. At the same time, ABC cut back on scripted development, leaving the network empty-handed when Millionaire burned out.
A return to “TGIF” would go a long way toward accomplishing Ms. Lyne’s and Mr. Braun’s goal of rebuilding the network with quality scripted programming harking back to the days of Roseanne and Home Improvement.
It would also put the network one step closer to Ms. Lyne’s and Mr. Braun’s goal of putting at least 10 comedies on the air this fall with 12 the goal by midseason. ABC is in the position to use some of its six returning sitcoms as springboards to launch new nights with comedies. ABC also has 13 sitcoms in development to choose from.
More Adult Sitcoms
While last year the big focus was on developing family sitcoms, this year ABC is also high on several more adult sitcoms. Those include Chris Henchy’s I’m With Her, about a schoolteacher dating a celebrity, and a project from Ann Flett-Giordano and Chuck Rangberg about a young couple in which the woman has two gay men as her parents.
ABC raised eyebrows when it gave early pickups to Less Than Perfect and Life With Bonnie right after the February sweeps because neither had stellar ratings. Season-to-date Perfect is ranked No. 59 among adults 18 to 49 with a 3.6/9 rating and Bonnie finished its season with a 3.8/9 average, ranked No. 53.
Even with a plethora of sitcoms in development that the network is happy with, Mr. Braun said he doesn’t regret picking up those two shows early. “Those shows not only were in tough time periods but they weren’t perfectly compatible with each other and they weren’t perfectly compatible with the show leading into them, According to Jim,” he said. “You have no idea how easy it would be to get a 1.5 in those time periods. For brand-new shows to perform that well says a lot about the inherent strength of both of them this early on in their lives.”
If ABC chooses to lead off Thursday nights with sitcoms, which is under consideration, it would likely be the only network to offer sitcoms from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
“We’re going to try to prepare the soil for the post-Friends world [on Thursdays],” Mr. Braun said. “We’re not going to be afraid to put on scripted shows and exercise patience. We absolutely believe we can and will do better than we did last fall.”
While Ms. Lyne and Mr. Braun see comedies as an opportunity, finding a successful drama is a must. Aside from Alias, which qualifies as a modest hit, the network hasn’t launched a successful new drama since The Practice seven years ago. The only other long-term drama on the network is 10-year-old NYPD Blue. ABC tried seven new dramas this year, with Dragnet being the only one that hasn’t been officially axed-largely because producer Dick Wolf has argued convincingly that he knows what changes need to be made to the show.
As if the network didn’t have enough problems with new dramas, it also saw the demise of The Practice with its post-football season move to Mondays at 9 p.m., where the ratings for the show, which had been winning its Sunday time slot, tanked. That move angered creator and executive producer David E. Kelley, who publicly accused ABC executives of trying to devalue the show, which is up for renewal after this season.
“In a perfect world we certainly would like to have The Practice back, but we live in an imperfect world so I’m not sure if that’s going to happen or not,” Mr. Braun said. “It’s almost exclusively a cost issue.”
As a veteran show, The Practice’s license fee would likely be three or four times that of a new drama, which costs an average $1.6 million per episode.
“We have to not just rebuild the network, but we have to rebuild it on a business model that is profitable,” Mr. Braun said. “At the end of the day while we’re running a creative enterprise, we’re also running a business. You’ve got to achieve both.”
Mr. Braun described the network’s current relationship with Mr. Kelley as “in a pretty good place” and said he hopes Mr. Kelley will do another show for the network at some point.
“Both of us have had conversations w
ith him [Mr. Kelley] since that blowup that have been much more professional and reasonable,” Ms. Lyne said. “He was a great partner to us this year. He did fantastic work on the show.”
While The Practice’s fate is in question, Ms. Lyne said two or three dramas will be introduced on the fall schedule this year.
Drama Dilemma
ABC wasted its opportunity to capitalize on the success of its reality franchise The Bachelor at 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. After the drama MDs failed early on, the network was caught shorthanded with no compatible drama in sight. “We’re not going to have that problem this year,” Mr. Braun promised, pointing to pilots such as Partners and Karen Sisco, which could fill that 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. time slot.
“Last year we were developing dramas for every possible time period on the map because we had so few shows anywhere,” Mr. Braun said. “[This year] we were able to target our drama development, mostly to the 10 o’clock hour. We were able to be more judicious and targeted. We’re going to have shows that are much more compatible.”
One series guaranteed a 10 p.m. time slot-the most obvious candidate being Sundays at 10 p.m.-is the Rod Lurie FBI drama Lines of Duty, which was already given a 13-episode pickup. The pilot episode contains two brutal scenes depicting mob henchmen maiming and killing people. “There are a couple of scenes in that show where we will probably pull back a little of that,” Ms. Lyne said. But she added that the network plans to push the boundaries of how much violence it will air because it is a gritty adult drama.
While Sunday at 10 p.m. and Wednesday at 10 p.m. are two obvious spots to add new dramas, Thursdays and Fridays also have potential drama slots.
“There’s nothing on the schedule right now that I would say is sacrosanct in terms of where it is,” Mr. Braun said. “We’re looking to better the schedule as a whole.”