Buyers Handicap New Shows

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

NBC has a good shot at solving its Thursday post-Friends problem with Coupling, its reworking of a wildly popular and sexy British sitcom.
CBS may have a winner in Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen’s new Monday night sitcom; in fact, the Eye Network looks strong in general, and almost more important, consistent with its new series for fall.
That’s the initial reaction of the Madison Avenue buyers, the toughest TV audience of all, to last week’s lavish and superlative-filled fall season presentations by the broadcast networks.
But when it comes to ABC, senior buyers queried during upfront week were dramatically divided, with at least one expressing in the strongest terms the view that network has once again landed in the soup.
“ABC was one of the weakest schedules I’ve seen, if not the weakest schedule and weakest programming I’ve seen, in 29 years of doing it,” said Jon Mandel, co-CEO, MediaCom, of ABC’s fall season presentation to the advertisers at Radio City Music Hall. “It didn’t seem to have any pattern. The shows seemed very stilted and very yesterday.”
The always plain-spoken Mr. Mandel was expressing a view heard widely if not unanimously-and rarely for attribution-during last week’s marathon round of upfront presentations,
“I’m happy that TGIF is back on ABC for family viewing,” said Bill Cella, Magna Global USA’s soft-spoken chairman, expressing a positive and oft-heard view about ABC’s new schedule and the return of its family-friendly Friday comedy block.
“I think it’s a good thing for the Family Forum too,” added Mr. Cella, who is a strong backer of the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a consortium of national advertisers that provides script-development funding for so-called family-friendly programming and which is widely credited for the development of WB’s Gilmore Girls series, among others.
Like many of their colleagues who rushed from presentation to presentation last week, Mr. Cella and Mr. Mandel were viewing pilots on the run. TelevisionWeek caught up with Mr. Mandel after he’d screened approximately half of the new offerings from the networks.
“The WB looked very strong, because they seemed to develop not just for a time period but for an overall look and feel,” he said. “And NBC looked good from a quality standpoint-just very well produced, very well written, very well cast shows-which is true of both WB and NBC.”
Magna’s research guru, Steve Sternberg, said of ABC that the “network is in significantly better shape going into the fall than it was going into this season, but that’s not really saying much. It still has work to do.”
Of NBC, Mr. Sternberg noted that the 18 to 49 demo leader is now closely pursued by three networks-ABC, CBS and Fox-“all within striking distance. … It is much more difficult to fend off three predators than one, and NBC’s lead is more vulnerable than ever.”
He called CBS’s ratings stability “rocklike” and observed that it is “not just a coincidence that the two networks that have been the most stable, CBS and The WB, are at opposite ends of the age spectrum and have had the most stable managements.”
Both Mr. Mandel and Mr. Cella praised CBS’s new Charlie Sheen series, Two and a Half Men, a family comedy that also stars Jon Cryer and Blythe Danner. “I like Charlie Sheen. He did well on Spin City,” Mr. Cella said. “I like the [new] show.”
Mr. Mandel called the CBS Sheen series “very, very good,” and said The WB’s Tarzan and Jane, which drops the young ape-man in the jungle of New York City, was simply “fabulous.”
But Tarzan didn’t fly for everyone. “I question the longevity of the story,” said Bob Flood, executive VP and director of national television, Optimedia International. “It’s beautifully shot, but maintaining continuity might be a challenge.” On the other hand, Steve Harvey’s Big Time “actually looked pretty entertaining,” he added.
Like Mr. Mandel, Mr. Flood saluted The WB for staying on message with its “still consistent” branding, but “in terms of groundbreaking new concepts, I don’t really see that.”
NBC’s Tuesday night lead-off, Whoopi, a sitcom starring Whoopi Goldberg as a hotel owner, doesn’t work, Mr. Mandel said flatly. “Whoopi was OK, but it just seemed they were trying too hard. Maybe it jells in the fifth or sixth episode, if it lasts that long.”
Mr. Cella, however, found both Whoopi and Happy Family, the new show starring John Larroquette and Christine Baranski and which follows Whoopi, pleasing additions to the Peacock schedule.
Mr. Flood was dubious about Whoopi’s chances, calling the show a “question mark,” but he singled out two new NBC dramas, The Lyon’s Den, starring Rob Lowe, and Las Vegas, starring James Caan, as “probably [NBC’s] two strongest shows.”
Miss Match, the Peacock Network’s Friday night light romantic comedy starring Alicia Silverstone, also came out of the upfront with general good buzz. Mr. Flood, for example, praised it as a “ warm and fuzzy kind of program” and “comfort food [that] people could digest easily.”
The big question mark for NBC is the post-Friends Thursday night schedule, and according to Mr. Mandel, the Peacock Network has a “good shot” at solving that conundrum with Coupling, its new 30-something ensemble comedy. “The British version [seen on BBC America] is hysterical,” he said, expressing a nearly unanimous opinion, but “you’ve got to see how it works over time. … You’re rewriting British humor for American tastes and you’ve got to develop a sort of creative rhythm. That’s to be seen.”
Mr. Cella initially expressed a content concern about the risque Coupling, based on the clip in NBC’s presentation, in which a young woman in a restaurant bares a breast to her friends, though not to the viewers. Later in the week, after he’d had a chance to screen the entire pilot, his opinion was positive. “Actually, I think it’s going to be a pretty good show,” he said.
The rising tide of reality programming was one concern for some agencies and advertisers that was expressed repeatedly in advance of upfront. But for the moment at least, that concern has been allayed. “People were anticipating more reality,” Mr. Cella said. Now though, “people are pretty satisfied that there’s just a reasonable amount of reality on the air.”