Upfront Navigator: Which Laughs Last

May 23, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Comedy the Commodity

40 New and Returning Sitcoms Set for Fall; Fox Animates Sunday

With the next big broadcast comedy hit as elusive as ever, the six broadcast networks last week announced fall 2005 schedules that increase the number of half-hour comedies from fall 2004, with some networks more aggressive than others in the search for a comedy breakout series.

In total, 40 slated sitcoms are scheduled for the fall, with Fox opting to dedicate an additional half-hour to animated comedy reruns and The WB using reruns in three half-hour slots. That’s compared with 36 comedies at the beginning of the 2004-05 TV season.

NBC, with four comedies on its fall schedule, has strategized that launching a new comedy half-hour can come only slowly but surely and in specific protected time periods.

CBS and ABC will each have six comedies on its schedule but seem to have the same strategy.

The WB, with five comedies, is launching its sole new comedy with a proven lead-in.

UPN, however, is shaking up its schedule by putting four comedies on Thursdays from 8-10 p.m. (ET)-the only network to do so-and is scheduling its most promising comedy in the 8 p.m. berth.

With 11 comedies on in the fall (two debuts, nine returning) Fox is creating comedy blocks on Mondays and Fridays at 8 p.m. while dedicating its entire Sunday night to mostly animated comedy fare.

Whether these approaches will help cultivate a “Desperate Housewives”-like success for half-hours remains to be seen, but every network touted its comedic offerings as the “fresh” or “out-of-the box” wonders that will revive the genre.

A network-by-network look at the upfront presentations:


The facts: ABC is adding two comedies and three dramas to its fall schedule but rolling out seven series during midseason: three comedies, three dramas and a reality show, several of which will have to fill in on Mondays once the final fall season of “Monday Night Football” on ABC ends.

Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney’s Media Networks unit, and president, Disney-ABC Television, delivered the good news from the network’s comeback season: ABC delivered 17 percent growth in the adults 18 to 49 demo for the season, the highest jump for any network since the advent of people meters. The network also has two of the top five highest-rated series among upscale young adults, she said.

Ms. Sweeney also said she’s counting on the ABC telecast of the 40th Super Bowl in January to be a “huge promotional platform for midseason,” though there was no mention of how the network planned to navigate winter series launches up against NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage.

The network can’t replicate the success of last fall’s breakout “Lost,” but with shows such as the new lead-out for the show, “Invasion,” ABC can “do shows that appeal tonally to that audience,” ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson said.

He also called the new 9 p.m. Thursday “Night Stalker” a “nice pairing with `Alias”‘ and a “great two-hour block” for a night in which ABC has been uncompetitive in recent seasons. “Frankly, we haven’t had the good stuff” to compete on Thursdays until now, Mr. McPherson said.

Themes: Mr. McPherson made clear ABC’s performance is “a comeback in progress” and that the network is “rebuilding” its shows and a “relationship with our audience.” Mr. McPherson said he didn’t want to “drone on about schedules you already know,” since audience members had copies of the network schedule at their seats, but he wanted to “cut to the chase” and introduce new shows. ABC skipped lengthy in-house gag videos and ran extended clips of new and returning series.

Best reality branding: Mr. McPherson said his alternative series brand was defined by “wish fulfillment, achievement, fantasy, romance and just plain fun” and showed clips of the very ABC-compatible summer series “Welcome to the Neighborhood” and “Brat Camp” as well as footage from the midseason “Miracle Workers.”

Biggest show stopper: “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry, bedecked in tie, top hat and tails, expertly belting out “Beautiful Girls” as his glamorously dressed female cast members were brought on stage by tuxedoed chorus boys. The number got a standing ovation.

Taunts: Jimmy Kimmel, who last year compared ABC to “the fat kid who eats paste,” admitted ABC was having a great season but said, “Ironically, we put a show on the air about a blind guy that nobody saw.” At the end of his set Mr. Kimmel said ABC had to get busy now that its presentation was almost over and “pack everything to get it over to Fox, so they can pitch it as their new season.”


The facts: CBS will debut six new series for fall: four dramas and two comedies, picking up one more drama and the same number of comedies as last season. Leslie Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS, said the network was looking to age down by taking off four of its five oldest-skewing series-“JAG,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Judging Amy” and “60 Minutes Wednesday”-and replacing them with shows such as “Close to Home” on Tuesdays.

“This will skew much younger than `[Judging] Amy’ did,” Mr. Moonves said of “Home.” “It has more male appeal [and] a much younger lead.”

CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler, making her upfront debut, said moving “King of Queens” to Mondays 8 p.m. and premiering the 20-something-themed “How I Met Your Mother” at 8:30 p.m. was “another important step in the right demographic direction.”

Mr. Moonves said replacing the 9 p.m. (ET) comedy block with the procedural “Criminal Minds” made sense because “every time we put a drama in front of `CSI:NY,’ its numbers jumped up.”

Thanks to ABC’s Sunday success with women, Mr. Moonves said CBS would get out of the female-aimed “women in jeopardy” TV movie game on Sundays and instead incorporate more younger-skewing “B-movies-locusts and sharks.”

For midseason CBS picked up the comedy “Everything I Know About Men,” starring Jenna Elfman, and the procedural drama “The Unit.” Mr. Moonves said CBS was “in discussions” with Warner Bros. TV to pick up the Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy “Old Christine.”

Themes: “You get it all at CBS” is the network mantra. The No. 1 network this season in total viewers, adults 25 to 54 and all key women demos, Mr. Moonves said, “the only thing keeping us from No. 1 in adults 18 to 49 was one single program, the Super Bowl,” or the fact that the World Series went to seven games. Fox, the likely No. 1 in the demo this season, aired both sports events.

Taunts: NBC Universal Television Group President Jeffrey Zucker was bashed constantly. When talking up CBS’s Thursday lineup, Mr. Moonves pointed out the double-digit declines in adults 18 to 49 for NBC and his competitor’s unwillingness to change. “They just renewed the entire night,” Mr. Moonves said, noting “`Must-See TV’ is history; `Must-Buy TV’ is CBS.”

Let’s go to the videotape: Mr. Moonves takes over the Hilary Swank role in the boxing film “Million Dollar Baby” with the seemingly implausible task of becoming the “18 to 49 champ.” His knocked-out opponents include boxers with robes that read “Hawaii” and “LAX.” Cameos include boxing promoter Don King and Viacom Chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone.

Let’s go to the videotape 2: “Survivor” host Jeff Probst brought the “The Early Show” co-hosts to an elimination ceremony, where Julie Chen has an “immunity ring,” her wedding ring from new husband Mr. Moonves.

Big numbers: Opener from the Broadway cast of “Avenue Q,” where puppets resembling NBC’s Mr. Zucker, Fox’s Rupert Murdoch and Disney’s Bob Iger sang versions of the show’s “It Sucks to Be Me,” commiserating about their programming troubles. Closer from Aretha Franklin, who sang “Respect.”


The facts: Fox picked up five new dramas and two new comedies for the fall. Two more debuting comedies are scheduled for midseason, along with three returning reality series. Instead of presenting three schedules, Fox introduced a sole schedule that incorporated changes starting in January, when “American Idol” will return on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

This summer Fox will launch the dram
a “The Inside” and three reality series in June and July and will roll out the dramas “The O.C.” and the new drama “Prison Break” in August, with the goal of having seven episodes of “Break” air before postseason baseball starts in October. “Break’s” Monday 9 p.m. (ET) schedule will allow it to run without repeats but give enough room for “24” to premiere midseason with an uninterrupted repeat-free run of its own.

Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori, who has been on the job for 51/2 weeks, said he is a “big believer in the promotional value of baseball” and looked forward to promoting shows such as the procedural drama “Bones.”

The themes: Stability, even with baseball’s disruption of the fall schedule and the January jiggering caused by “American Idol.” Mr. Liguori said with the network’s status as No. 1 not only in teens and adults 18 to 34 for the season but also for the first time among adults 18 to 49, Fox “has a big target on our back.”

He also said the Wednesday 8 p.m. comedy block would benefit competitively from ABC’s “Lost” moving from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., while the procedural crime drama “The Gate” would draw viewers who used to watch NBC’s “Third Watch” and CBS’s “JAG.”

The taunts: Mr. Liguori called NBC’s decision to run two installments of the reality series “The Apprentice” concurrently “short-term thinking” and commended Fox’s decision to keep “Idol” a once-a-year event. Fox ad sales staffers did a Jedi-inspired film edition of “Sales Wars,” zapping all their competitors before going after “Darth Moonves” and a Death Star that looked suspiciously like the CBS eye logo.

Let’s go to the videotape: Mr. Liguori’s first few days on the job were profiled in a segment filled with unwanted advice from his family, Tom Arnold, Denis Leary, and News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch.

Let’s go to the feed: “Idol” finalists Carrie Underwood and a barefoot Bo Bice were interviewed via satellite from Los Angeles by the music reality show’s host Ryan Seacrest, who was in New York. Judge Paula Abdul, a recent tabloid regular, got an unintended laugh when Mr. Seacrest asked her if this season of “Idol” was any different from last year’s.

Musical interlude: Current “Idol” Fantasia Barrino sang to the rafters, accompanied by the Harlem Gospel Choir.

What an exit! Instead of kissing Kiefer Sutherland at the end of his presentation as his predecessor Gail Berman had done, Mr. Liguori shared a passionate kiss with Pamela Anderson while his wife looked on.


The facts: NBC picked up eight new series-three comedies, three dramas and two reality shows. Six will premiere in the fall: the dramas, both reality hours and one comedy. That’s down from the two fall comedies NBC premiered last year.

NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said that in this marketplace it is “impossible” to self-start new comedies, and that the network has to build up before it can add the two-hour sitcom blocks that made the NBC a fortune in the 1980s and ’90s.

Mr. Reilly said a second-season pickup for “The Office” fits into the “great tradition” of quirky comedies that needed time to make it on NBC and deserved a fall shot with comparable programming at 9 p.m.

“Scrubs” has a full pickup but will premiere midseason, sharing “Office’s” Tuesday time slot. Mr. Reilly also said a late start for the show gives star Zach Braff the time to shoot a feature this fall and still do the show.

NBC went back and forth on the decision to run both “The Apprentice” and “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” in the fall. But the network’s executives said they thought interest in Martha Stewart would be highest sooner rather than later, and didn’t want to put pressure on Ms. Stewart’s installment with a Thursday airing.

With Sunday night being transitional in the year before the 2006 prime-time football package starts, NBC wanted to have only returning shows for the night, which explains “The West Wing’s” move from Wednesdays to Sunday 8 p.m. The network also needed “West Wing” on in the fall schedule because it is still NBC’s best performer in high-income homes and good counterprogramming against CBS’s “Cold Case” and ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

NBC’s two midseason comedies are NBC Universal/Broadway Video’s “Thick and Thin” and Warner Bros.’ “Four Kings.”

The fixes: A focus on revitalizing 8 p.m. blocks, plus selected tweaks in the 9 p.m. hour and only one change at 10 p.m., the network’s strongest across-the-board time period. Mr. Zucker explained NBC’s strategy for rebuilding with a Johnny Cochran-like rhyme: “Get out of the gate at 8, add shows that rate, and stay strong late.”

Themes: Upscale, upscale, upscale. A vast array of NBC shows dominate the households of $75,000-plus and $150,000-plus income adults 18 to 49. NBC Universal Television Group President Jeffrey Zucker said, “We’re not where we want to be” when it comes to its fourth-place season-to-date finish in adults 18 to 49 but pointed out just a half-a-ratings-point difference in the demo average for the season between the No. 1 and No. 4 networks was “historic.”

The taunts: “Saturday Night Live” news live segment featuring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler critiquing ABC hits. While Ms. Poehler said she learned from “Lost” that “it’s impossible for a fat girl to survive an airplane crash,” Ms. Fey said “Desperate Housewives” was “one photo shoot away from self-destruction.”

What a finale! To promote the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, surprise guest Jamie Foxx sang “America the Beautiful.”


The facts: UPN picked up three series for the fall, two comedies and one drama, plus an additional drama for midseason. Its fall pickups were the mirror image of last season’s debuts of two dramas and one comedy. Viacom Co-President and Co-Chief Operating Officer Leslie Moonves said UPN is using the same strategy that worked for its big brother CBS: building a schedule night by night. Dawn Ostroff, president of UPN, said Thursdays are a primary focus and the single-camera comedy “Everybody Hates Chris” would do for UPN what “The Simpsons” did for Fox and “The Cosby Show” did for NBC. “This is that kind of game changer,” she said.

The themes: The oft-repeated sales pitch “Where the girls are and where the boys want to be.” Ms. Ostroff said the network will continue to focus on young women, even as The WB ages up its demo. “The multiple personality disorder is over,” she said.

Even though UPN is still behind The WB in women 18 to 34, Ms. Ostroff said UPN is in the position to prevail next season, particularly taking into account the current May sweeps, where the gains are even higher. The May 17 debut of the new reality series “Britney and Kevin: Chaotic” gave UPN its highest women 18 to 34 and women 18 to 49 ratings in the time period in over a year. UPN will also begin promoting its “Spend Summer With Veronica” campaign to get summer buzz for its returning drama “Veronica Mars.” Ms. Ostroff touted the network’s overall flow of schedule, but defended the decision to keep “WWE SmackDown!” and move it to Fridays. She said “SmackDown!” would perform on Fridays, since it has a “loyal” audience that proved it will watch even when the competition is “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “Friends.”

The taunts: “Who would have thought UPN could beat The WB in young women?” Ms. Ostroff asked, pointing out UPN was up by double digits for the season in young women and total viewers, while The WB was down.

Best jokes: Besides getting a response from the crowd with clips from his show, Chris Rock also got laughs when he suggested the new UPN motto sounded like the tag line for a strip club. He also compared “Everybody Hates Chris” with the wrapped CBS comedy “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “White man out, black man in,” Mr. Rock said. “See how it works?”

Glam highlights: A surprise fashion show with the entire cast of the just-aired “America’s Next Top Model,” including winner Naima Mora; Ms. Ostroff taking the stage wearing a boa constrictor while accompanied by Britney Spears-like backup dancers; executive producer Jennifer Lopez introducing the cast of her midseason drama “So
uth Beach.”

The WB

The facts: The WB picked up three dramas and one comedy for the fall and announced it was moving four veteran series to new time periods. For next fall all six nights on The WB’s schedule have either a new series, a time period change or both. The network is splitting up its successful Monday and Tuesday night blocks to create lead-ins for its trio of new fall dramas. The single sitcom fits into the existing two-hour Friday comedy block at 8:30 p.m.

The network picked up two midseason comedies: 20th Century Fox TV/Imagine TV’s “Misconception,” starring Jane Leeves, and Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Modern Men.” Two dramas also got midseason pickups: the Warner Bros./HBO Independent Prods.’ college drama “Bedford Diaries” and 20th Century Fox TV’s “Pepper Dennis,” starring Rebecca Romijn.

Theme: It’s all about quality auspices. Network Chairman Garth Ancier touted The WB Entertainment President David Janollari’s first upfront in the job and new series from A-list producers Jerry Bruckheimer, Marta Kauffman and McG with older casts and more-adult story lines.

One of Mr. Janollari’s first jobs was “dispelling the notion that if you’re producing a series for The WB, your lead character has to be in high school,” Mr. Ancier said.

He also said The WB would build on its bond with 12- to 24-year-old viewers, and “extend” to 25- to 34-year-old viewers.

The no-frills upfront: Mr. Ancier said The WB was eschewing big musical entertainment (at last year’s upfronts Lenny Kravitz performed) for extended footage from new product. “When the shows are great, the clips speak for themselves,” he said.

Defense is offense: Mr. Janollari said The WB’s plan to schedule an hour block of the male-skewing and rural-friendly “Blue Collar Comedy” at 9 p.m. is “quite the counterprogramming move” against ABC’s female and more upscale “Desperate Housewives.”

Let’s go to the videotape: Unlike last year, when Executive VP of Media Sales Bill Morningstar showed his sales team superimposed in network series, this year his staff was featured in popular ads for sponsors such as Verizon and Mountain Dew.

Biggest crowd pleaser: Ashton Kutcher interrupting Mr. Janollari’s opening remarks to show a clip of his summer reality dating series “Beauty and the Geek,” which got big laughs when one of the beauties said her I.Q was “about 500” and a geek said he couldn’t date since he was busy with the “Dukes of Hazzard” fan club.

Milestones: Next season “7th Heaven” becomes the longest-running family drama in TV history, surpassing “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

Biggest demo shift? “Will & Grace” producers Max Mutchnick & David Kohan said they were brought to The WB to make the network “gayer.” Their suggestions included casting “American Idol’s” Ryan Seacrest and Clay Aiken as “Gilmore Girls” and combining two network sitcoms to make “Reba’s Living With Fran.”