TelevisionWeek’s 2003 Guide to The Upfronts

May 12, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Everybody’s looking for laughs-and taking reality checks-this week in New York as the broadcast networks gather to unveil their fall schedules.
With NBC’s Friends and Frasier in their last year and the possibility that CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond will only last one more season, the broadcast networks are searching harder than ever for the next big comedy hit.
ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said she wants to have 10 comedies on ABC’s schedule this fall and up to 12 by midseason. NBC has the most sitcoms in development among the networks with 15, several networks are considering additional comedy nights. Fox and The WB are said to be considering attacking perennial weak spot Thursday night with urban-oriented blocks of comedy.
“With so much drama on the schedule-we’ve had about five years of aggressive drama development-it’s really a good time [for the networks] to try to launch more comedies as a counterprogramming measure,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive VP and director of global research integration for Initiative Media. “The problem is if everyone decides to develop more comedies than dramas next year and we have multiple blocks of comedies that are competing against each other.”
A close eye also will be kept on networks’ reality plans heading into the fall. Most network executives say scripted programming is their main focus and reality programming is a quick fix to boost a time period when scripted series fail. The unveiling of their fall schedules will reveal whether they walk their talk.
Insiders predict a combination of traditional scripted fare and reality shows will pop up on most network schedules.
“Having a sprinkling of reality shows across the landscape is nice but you don’t want to be totally dependent on it,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research at Horizon Media. “American Idol is certainly a show that deserves to come back. It’s family entertainment. Advertisers love it with the product integration. It’s a lot of buzz, but you can’t build a network strictly around that.”
Following is a network-by-network look at what is likely to happen this week. Ratings are season-to-date averages. Percentages are year-to-year comparisons unless otherwise noted.
ABC stopped the bleeding last year by solidifying its Tuesday lineup with 8 Simple Rules, According to Jim, Life With Bonnie and Less Than Perfect and making strides on Wednesday night with My Wife and Kids, George Lopez and The Bachelor.
Comedy remains important to ABC. Ms. Lyne said the network will pick up four to six new sitcoms. With 13 comedies in development and six already picked up, look for the network to expand comedies to another night, such as Friday, where it used to have the very successful TGIF lineup.
However, with only two dramas, NYPD Blue and Alias, returning, drama is the big priority this year. “We clearly need to launch dramas that can really grab an audience,” Ms. Lyne said.
She said two to three new dramas will be added to the schedule next season, with major attention paid to the 10 p.m. time slots. ABC never capitalized on the success of The Bachelor at 9 p.m. Wednesdays to lead out to scripted programming during the 2002-03 season. Ms. Lyne said the network won’t make the same mistake next season, with several dramas in development targeted at that time slot. The Rod Lurie drama Lines of Duty has already been given a 13-episode order.
* Fall reality strategy: ABC shot itself in the foot this spring by slapping four reality series on the air-all of which tanked in the ratings. Ms. Lyne promises that reality will occupy a maximum of two hours on the schedule this fall, and that includes The Bachelor.
* Renewed: According to Jim, Alias, America’s Funniest Home Videos, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, George Lopez, Less Than Perfect, Life With Bonnie, My Wife and Kids, NYPD Blue, Drew Carey
* Question marks: The Practice won its time slot on Sunday nights at 10 p.m., but after it moved to Monday night at 10 p.m., its ratings were practically invisible. With the network’s drama development looking strong, this expensive older series may be expendable.
* Hot pilots: Sitcoms Hope and Faith, Hench at Home, Flett-Giordano and Ranberg project, I’m With Her and The Dan Show and dramas Lines of Duty, Partners and Karen Sisco
CBS has the most stable lineup of the six networks and has succeeded in strengthening the 10 p.m. hour with freshman dramas CSI: Miami and Without a Trace, which are shoo-ins to return next year.
“They are probably the most settled of the six networks,” Mr. Adgate said. “That’s a good sign. Unless they change their focus, a large portion of their lineup will be intact.”
Wednesday night and Friday night are CBS’s top priorities after unsuccessful attempts to establish new dramas on those nights. Each night could use one to two hours of new programming, depending on whether Star Search, which has filled the 8 p.m. hour both evenings, returns. With Everybody Loves Raymond in what could be its final year, CBS also could look to establish a new comedy block on either night to give the network another place to cultivate a successor.
CBS and Raymond’s producers don’t yet have a done deal for the show to come back this fall, but it is expected to return.
The Sunday movie franchise has been hit or miss this year, but will likely return. David E. Kelley’s family drama The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H. has a series commitment and could fit well on Friday or Sunday night at 8 p.m.
While crime and legal dramas have been working for CBS, with eight of its 10 drama pilots crime related, that could spell overload for the viewer. “Last year we started to call them the crime-and-justice network,” Ms. Koerner said.
* Fall reality strategy: Building reality franchises is still CBS’s goal. Expect to see Survivor and possibly one more hour of reality on the network in the fall. Star Search is on the bubble. The Amazing Race 4 is finished and slated for the summer, but the franchise could return to the regular season if it does well.
* Renewed: JAG
* Question marks: Still Standing may be the highest-rated new sitcom in total viewers this year, but without its protected time slot behind Everybody Loves Raymond, it may not cut it. It has averaged 14.4 million viewers this season, but drops about 20 percent of its lead-in audience. Hack has been finishing fourth in its time slot in adults 18 to 49 and in a time slot where CSI debuted, CBS could do better.
* Hot pilots: Sitcoms The Nicole Sullivan project and Two and a Half Men and dramas The Jerry Bruckeheimer/Meredith Stiehm project, The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H. and Expert Witness
Fox won the February sweeps in adults 18 to 49 and made a good run at No. 1-ranked NBC with the success of American Idol and Joe Millionaire. However, none of the network’s freshman scripted series is a given to return.
“We have momentum and we would like to make sure that we continue that momentum,” Ms. Berman said. “We want to make sure that everyone sees that we have balance on our schedule, balance between scripted shows, unscripted shows and variety shows, so that we really have a strong use of unscripted material into scripted material.” Ms. Berman said the network has made an effort to develop some female-skewing dramas to continue to attract the young female audience Idol has brought to the network.
Fox needs to overhaul its Thursday night, since it never established a consistent lineup, and Friday night, where Firefly burned out last fall.
Fox also must fill the Tuesday and Wednesday Idol time slots until the next edition of Idol debuts in January. “You can be sure we will have the American Idol time periods very aggressively programmed,” Ms. Berman said.
Fox plans to launch some of its new series in the summer, with Keen Eddie slated for a June 3 debut. The O.C. and Wonder Falls were given early pickups, so there’s a chance one or both of those could see a later summer premiere as well.
With a year-round strategy, Fox could pick up series with episode orders deviating fro
m the standard 22. “Years ago we did that with our shows like 90210, where we were doing up to 35 episodes a season, and we certainly hold that as a possibility,” Ms. Berman said.
* Fall reality strategy: Reality programming will be used strategically to attract audiences to scripted programming, Ms. Berman said. While Monday at 9 p.m. was the perfect place for Joe Millionaire to flourish, Married by America and Mr. Personality didn’t fare so well in that slot. So the time period could go either way, with scripted or unscripted programming.
* Renewed: The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, 24, That ’70s Show, King of the Hill
* Question marks: Midseason sitcoms Oliver Beene and Watch With Wanda premiered well, but both were in protected time slots. How well they could stand on their own remains to be seen. Friday night dramas John Doe and Fastlane never attracted huge audiences, but did do well in adults 18 to 34.
* Hot pilots: Sitcoms The Ortegas, Cracking Up and Arrested Development and dramas The O.C., Wonder Falls and NYPD 2069
NBC will finish the season in first place in adults 18 to 49, but it still has problems-most notably the aging of its core lineup. Friends and ER are in their 9th season, Frasier is in its 10th and Law & Order is in its 13th season. NBC bought itself another year to find a hit sitcom with the renewal of Friends, so it must take advantage. Frasier will likely end its run next year as well.
“[Our focus is] principally on comedy development and fixing Tuesday night,” Mr. Zucker said.
The network has a big hole to fill Tuesday from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., where ABC’s comedy lineup put a dent in NBC’s dominance the past two years. The time slot has also provided a poor lead-in for Frasier, which saw its ratings drop this year. The only freshman sitcom with a shot at renewal is Thursday sitcom Good Morning, Miami, which has solid ratings but hasn’t found any fans among critics.
“It had the best retention of any show on television this season in terms of first-year comedies,” Mr. Zucker said of Miami. “The only people who haven’t given it any credit are the press. Its performance has actually been quite strong. Beyond that we’ve got the biggest hit of the last few years in Scrubs last year.”
On the drama side, expect American Dreams, Crossing Jordan and Third Watch to return. The network likely has room on its schedule for only one or two new dramas.
Movies will stay on Saturday nights for the time being. “We still have a significant inventory of movies to run,” Mr. Zucker said.
* Fall reality strategy: Fear Factor will return and a second hour of reality is a possibility. “We have a strategy that uses reality in the summer to get us to 52-week-a-year programming,” Mr. Zucker said. “It’s not a priority for us during the season.”
* Renewed: Friends, Frasier, The West Wing, Law & Order, Will & Grace, ER, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Scrubs
* Question marks: NBC has a few drama holes to fill-8 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 10 p.m. Sunday being the biggest question marks-and many choices. Boomtown, Kingpin or Ed could return or the network could opt for new dramas.
* Hot pilots: Sitcoms Coupling, Happy Family, Come to Papa, Tracy Morgan project and Whoopi Goldberg project and dramas Miss/Match, The Lyon’s Den and Las Vegas
Monday night’s African American comedy block is working and Thursday nights are locked up with World Wrestling Entertainment. With Buffy the Vampire Slayer ending its run, Tuesday will need a complete overhaul.
As it is developing several more urban sitcoms, such as All of Us, executive produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, and the Eve project, UPN could create a second night of African American programming to attract Monday viewers with two sitcoms leading into a drama.
Midseason Platinum didn’t set the ratings on fire, but don’t count it out. UPN execs love the drama, which has received good critical buzz-something the network desperately needs. With a more compatible lead-in, it has lots of room to grow.
Mr. Adgate said targeting a multicultural audience is a good move for the network, which aims to reach 18- to 34-year-olds. “People in that target audience are multicultural,” he said. “If you’re going after that target audience you should reflect how they live. I think advertisers will definitely buy into that. It’s an up-and-coming market that has been underserved on network TV.”
The other problem facing UPN is when it does have a show with critical acclaim such as Platinum it hasn’t been able to get viewers to sample it. “They need more Viacom power behind them,” Ms. Koerner said. “They could benefit from some promotional weight on networks such as BET, which could cross-promote the Monday lineup. I’m not quite sure why they don’t try and share more of the sports properties with CBS since they are trying to be more male.”
* Fall reality strategy: UPN will likely have no reality programming on its schedule.
* Renewed: WWE Smackdown
* Question marks: UPN is likely to bring back the Friday night movie because it has bigger problems to worry about, but the network could try to send a bold statement by programming scripted series on that night.
* Hot pilots: Sitcoms All of Us and the Eve project and dramas Newton and Nanobot project
The WB
The WB is solid on Monday, Tuesday and Friday nights and improved its Sunday night by moving Charmed there to anchor the night this year.
“The biggest priority for us is going to be maintaining Wednesday night’s strength after the retirement of Dawson’s Creek,” Mr. Levin said.
While Tuesday’s combo of Gilmore Girls and Smallville makes for the network’s highest-rated night, Smallville could be moved to anchor Wednesday night. Alternatively, the network, which has a strong crop of sitcoms in development this year, may try leading off the night with two sitcoms into a drama.
Thursday night is the other trouble spot. “The last two years we tried to lay the groundwork for a post-Friends environment,” Mr. Levin said. “We didn’t directly try to create a counterprogram strategy. This year we will counterprogram.”
Counterprogramming moves could include trying a block of urban sitcoms (All About the Andersons starring Anthony Anderson and Like Family starring Holly Robinson Peete have received good buzz), reality or going back to a drama at 8 p.m., where Gilmore Girls was successfully launched.
The WB will bring back the Sunday 5 p.m.-to-7 p.m. Easy View repeats of two of its series and the Beginnings franchise at 7 p.m., Mr. Levin said. Beginnings usually reruns seasons one and two of a third-year series, making Smallville the obvious candidate. Mr. Levin said it hasn’t been decided yet whether Easy View will feature one new series and one returning series, as it did this year.
* Fall reality strategy: “The only opportunity would be if it’s a counterprogramming strategy on Thursday nights,” Mr. Levin said. The WB picked up second editions of High School Reunion and The Surreal Life, both of which will be ready by fall.
* Renewed: 7th Heaven, Charmed, Everwood, Gilmore Girls, Grounded for Life, Reba, Smallville
* Question marks: Look for JKX: Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Amanda Bynes’ What I Like About You to return-The WB is big on Mr. Kennedy’s and Ms. Bynes’ star power. Buffy spinoff Angel is still on the bubble, but with ratings trending upward the past few seasons, a possible infusion of Buffy cast members and critical acclaim, it’s getting harder to cancel.
* Hot pilots: Sitcoms All About the Andersons, Kid Mayor and Like Family, and dramas Tarzan and Jane, One Tree Hill, Windward Circle and MacGyver