Faith, hope and stability
As broadcast nets announce fall schedules, some are more desperate than others
By Steve McClellan -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/19/2002 8:00:00 PM
With seemingly the entire media world taking potshots at broadcast television, it was almost refreshing, last week, when NBC became the first to announce its new fall schedule, it took an almost contrarian approach: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Indeed, NBC, the top-rated network in most of the key ad-sales demographics and dayparts is spinning a conservative message for this fall. NBC's mantra at last week's upfront was to the point: It offers "strength and stability."
The other major networks are all making aggressive changes in their schedules, albeit for different reasons. CBS thinks it can give NBC a run for its money next year. ABC and Fox, both stuck in Nielsen hell, are simply looking to get back into the ballgame; indeed, at ABC's upfront presentation, executives pleaded with ad buyers to have patience as the network rebuilds itself.
Although ABC had grown fat with multiple plays of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, that game show has been put so far out into the pasture that execs at a pre–upfront press conference forgot to mention that it will be back as a periodic special this year, and had to yell the news to reporters as they headed for the exit.
Of the four major networks, NBC made the fewest changes: five new shows totaling 31/2 hours vs. six new ones and 41/2 hours last year.
Descriptions of next fall's new shows and the strategies behind them begin on page 19.
Fox made the most changes, replacing half its schedule: 10 shows totaling 71/2 hours. Last year, it added just two new dramas and three comedies for 31/2 hours.
ABC's major makeover includes nine new shows totaling 71/2 hours. Last fall, the network launched five shows totaling four hours.
CBS has a solid hold on second in the Nielsen ratings but isn't standing pat. It's adding five dramas and two comedies, or six hours total. Last year, it launched six dramas (three of them stuck) and two comedies.
Both The WB and UPN are shaking things up—the former more so, adding four hours of shows over four nights.
UPN, now fully a part of CBS and Viacom, is adding just 21/2 hours, giving Mondays a bit of a makeover, and launching new hours off the solid beachheads established this season with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Enterprise.
Pax TV is adding four original prime time hours.
Altogether, the seven English-language networks will debut 45 shows next season, 25% more than this season.
The networks continue to take greater ownership control of their schedules; it's so much a part of the process that it's almost hard to remember that there was once a rule that prohibited their owning their own shows.
The WB picked up three Warner-produced shows for next season. Exactly half of its 13 hours of prime time are now produced in-house by co-owned Warner Bros. Television.
Warner Bros. Television will produce 18 hours of network prime time TV next season (up from 13 a year ago), second only to Twentieth Television, which will have 19 hours on next season.
But Warner Bros. will have series on five networks and is the only studio to have new series on four of the broadcast networks. (On the other hand, Universal Television, which doesn't have a natural tie-in with any network, had a banner upfront, adding three series to its returning nest of six.)
Eight of the 10 new series Fox picked up are produced in-house or in association with an in-house production company. It produces more than two-thirds of its schedule in-house.
Touchstone is producing nine of the 11 new shows ABC has announced as starters or mid-season replacements. It has 14 shows on network TV, including five returning. Roughly 60% of ABC's schedule is produced in-house.
Although the studios have a mandate to produce in-house, they continue to serve up important shows for other networks as well. That's especially true for Warner Bros., which produces NBC's two most important shows: Friends and ER. Indeed, NBC spends far more on those two shows than The WB spends on its entire prime time schedule. So economics and program fit still dictate that the studios produce for as many takers as they can get.
Even Disney served up the biggest comedy hit of the current season for an outsider: Scrubs for NBC. And it produces Amazing Race for CBS, a key show in the network's mission to get take some age off its audience profile.
Still, serving your in-house network and its competitors is "remarkably difficult," says Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. He likens the process to "navigating a minefield that gets increasingly complex each season."
That may be true, but the subject matter for prime time schedules seemed a little light on the risk-taking side. And, significantly, given the pandemonium after Survivor became a hit, the reality genre seems to have gone into hiding at most networks.
New crime shows are all over the place, including one for midseason that NBC promises will be unlike anything seen before on network TV. Kingpin, about a drug cartel, is told from the point of view of the bad guys and appears to be NBC's response to HBO's The Sopranos . (Remember that much-publicized letter Bob Wright wrote to producers last year, along with a tape of one of the more brutally violent Sopranos episodes, asking executives how NBC should compete?)
Alan Wurtzel, NBC president of research, new-business development and standards and practices, said the show will be "very controversial" (although Entertainment President Jeff Zucker insisted it didn't grow out of Wright's memo.)
"I think there will be a lot of advertiser resistance to Kingpin at first," said Mediacom chief negotiating officer Jon Mandel. But there shouldn't be, said Mandel, who has seen the pilot and is an unabashed fan of the show. "It's time for ad buyers to pony up and buy all the risky shows they say they want network television to try.
"I think people are going to compare it to The Sopranos and, after the first year, they're gonna say it's better than The Sopranos."
But one top executive of a major broadcast group had his own reality check. "I think there are going to be NBC affiliates, especially in border cities, that are going to have real trouble with this show because it seems to glorify a drug trader. I think NBC's got a good show and doesn't know what in the world to do with it."
On the other end of the thematic spectrum, new family dramas made the cut on three networks: Everwood on The WB, AmericanDreams on NBC and Septuplets on Fox. ABC is positioning its 8 p.m. ET hour across the week as family-friendly and promoting it as the "ABC Happy Hour."
The television biz itself is the backdrop for several shows, including NBC's Good Morning Miami and ABC's Less Than Perfect and Life With Bonnie.
There's going to be a new battle of the medical dramas Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Remember Chicago Hope? Nine years ago, it went up against ER. Next fall, it will be Meds on ABC vs. Presidio Med on CBS, both set in San Francisco. Pax has the other new medical show: Body &Soul, with Emmy winner Peter Strauss.
The three youngest networks—Fox, The WB and UPN—are all remaking hits from the 1960s—Time Tunnel, Family Affair and The Twilight Zone —perhaps in a bid to broaden their appeal to the parents of their core audiences. ABC promises a remake of Dragnet.
Time travel is also a big theme this year. In addition to the aforementioned TimeTunnel, both ABC and The WB are doing shows about adults who get a chance to go back into their own pasts to fix something about their lives. ABC's take is one-hour drama That Was Then; The WB's, half-hour comedy Do Over (from former NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield).
NBC isn't the only network claiming to bring something you've never seen before to network TV. Vin DiBona (America's Funniest Home Videos ) is meshing a sort of CandidCamera- like reality with the sitcom format in Meet the Marks for Fox.
Fox is also blending genres (sitcom/variety) in a show called Cedric the EntertainerPresents, while ABC is meshing reality with its quirky Twin Peaks -like hour called Push, Nevada . The series has a season-long story arc about a casino heist. But there's an interactive gimmick: Clues for viewers are embedded throughout as to the whereabouts of the stolen money, which will be given away to one lucky viewer who can figure out where it is. Frankly, ABC couldn't even seem to explain exactly how it works.
Likewise, Fox had some buyers scratching their heads last week at all the changes it's making. But Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said the network really had no choice: "We had to make some aggressive moves in order to show some growth on our network next year."
Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior vice president and director of broadcast research, Initiative Media, says of Fox, "Like ABC, they have their work cut out them." The good news is, on most nights, Fox does have an established anchor show. "The new shows fit in with their strategy. They're not off message."
Koerner says NBC's best shot is probably a new family drama called AmericanDreams . At CBS, CSI: Miami is almost a guaranteed hit, she says. And the comedy Still Standing has good shot, too. At ABC, she thinks new John Ritter sitcom 8Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter has the network's best shot at success. She was also high on UPN and on The WB's Everwood. But this is May. By November or December, the prognosis may change, and many of these schedules may, too.
|Upfront ad sales|
|By TV season|
|Network||2000 (million)||Change*||2001 (million)||Change*||2002e (million)||Change*|
|E = estimated *From previous season Source: UBS Warburg estimates
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