Yes! A new season emerges
No strike and no upfront market (yet) as nets unveil 36 new series for fall
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/20/2001 8:00:00 PM
It was supposed to be the week where everything went wrong for network television. The strike threat in Hollywood, the woes of vertical integration, a turbulent economy and the influx of reality projects were all expected to cloud the broadcast network upfronts in New York.
But now, strikes by the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild are unlikely, the major networks somehow opened their doors to outside studios, and, while few are suggesting the economy has turned around, the Dow hit 11,000 again last week just as the broadcast networks were unveiling their fall schedules to advertisers.
The $8 billion figure committed to during last year's upfronts may not be seen this spring (or whenever the upfront market actually breaks), but network and studio executives last week seemed more optimistic about the forecast for the upcoming ad-buying ritual.
On the programming side, as expected, reality series abounded at all the major networks, but they didn't overshadow scripted fare, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was scaled back to two weekly installments. "It has not been the year that everybody feared. It's not a season that is riddled with reality programming across the board. It doesn't look like there are going to be any strikes, and, based on what I have seen thus far, I think there is a better level of quality than ever before," says Warner Bros. TV President Peter Roth, whose studio landed six new series for the fall. "The bar is up, and it's great for everyone. … There is no room left for mediocrity anymore."
Affiliates often take a more practical look at the schedules. Jim Keelor, president of Cosmos Broadcasting, says he's pleased that the networks haven't "risked too much on new reality stuff," but notes that "all the networks are loaded up on cop shows. That concerns me. Four redundant networks have trouble maintaining audience as it is."
Jim Prather, president of the Journal Broadcast Group, says he is happy with the fact that NBC is "moving into dramas on Sunday nights." But, referring to a new Tuesday comedy starring Emeril Lagasse, he adds, " I can't say I'm as excited about the comedies, especially the chef show. And we have concerns about the aging of the NBC comedy lineup, about getting some fresh material in there."
All told, the six biggest broadcast networks ordered 16 new comedies, 17 new dramas and three new reality series for their fall schedules. Also, UPN acquired Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell from The WB, while that netlet ordered five new comedies, and CBS ordered five dramas—the most in each genre.
Last fall, the six didn't add even one reality project to their fall lineups. ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Fox's Saturday-night combo of America's Most Wanted and Cops, and UPN's WWF Smackdown were holdovers from the previous season. Thanks to Survivor and Millionaire, this fall all six networks will have at least one reality series in their lineup, and there are five reality programs that were not on the air a year ago. Temptation Island, The Mole and Weakest Link all earned return engagements. And all of the networks have others waiting in the wings.
The emergence of Survivor cheers CBS, but Loren Tobia, news director at WTVH-TV in Syracuse, was disappointed the new CBS schedule didn't seem to have much in it that helps boost 11 p.m. newscasts. "I'd love to have Survivor as a 10 o'clock lead-in, he says. "From an affiliate standpoint, Survivor doesn't mean much because a lot of that audience goes away before our news."
But the genre has obviously taken root. "Reality is here to stay," says Fox's Sandy Grushow. "If you look across all the schedules, everybody is doing it. And we are certainly going to be in that game to varying degrees ourselves. … With a strong development slate, we have the luxury of not having to come out with an enormous amount in the fall. But that doesn't mean we are in any way, shape or form shying away from it."
Tom Nunan, UPN's entertainment president, says, "I think, more and more, we are learning that whoever the creative vision behind these shows is—just like sitcoms and dramas—is going to be the key to reality's success. We will always sit up and pay attention when the Mark Burnetts of the world come around."
Another type of reality may hit the broadcast networks' ad-sales staffs next month when the network portion of the upfront is expected to break open. Most media buyers expect the sluggish economy to affect the usually quick process, dragging it out at least into July.
"It's going to be slow in contrast to the last three years, and there is going to be less money committed upfront," says Paul Schulman of media buyer Schulman/ Advanswers NY. "Based on what I hear from my clients, I think there is going to be less money spent, and, when I spoke with other agency people, they too appear to be getting budgets that appear to be lower. But with the slowness of the market, it's possible that more money will come in and more money will solidify."
Network executives were talking a different story. "We are very optimistic. There is no recession happening in the United States," asserts UPN President Dean Valentine. "The advertisers need to reach the audience to protect their brand shares and we think it's going to be a healthy upfront."
Joe Abruzzese, CBS' top sales executive, says, "The money that will be placed upfront will probably be less than last year, but that doesn't mean that overall dollars will be down. There will be more in scatter." And when upfront breaks, it will probably be later, as networks and buyers try to figure out the economy. At the CBS presentation, Abruzzese joked that the upfront would happen "in three days. … Unfortunately, those days are August 3, 4 and 5."
The Screen Actors Guild still has to finalize a new contract with the major Hollywood studios, but both sides have shown a willingness to work out their differences, and the networks and advertisers are all but counting on the summer of 2001 to be strike-free.
"I was one who never believed that there would be a strike," says CBS' Les Moonves. "Our main contingency plan was moving Big Brother to seven nights a week, and I'm happy I didn't have to go that route."
The studios had been worried about strikes, rushing production in fear of such reality-programming onslaughts. But there were no "B" schedules last week, and, for the third straight year, 20th Century Fox led the way in the overall Hollywood production race.
The studio landed a record 24 shows with spots on all six network schedules, including seven new series for the fall and a handful more for midseason. Co-owned Fox TV Studios had another strong year, as well. Paramount TV Group, which houses Paramount Network TV, Big Ticket, Viacom Productions and Spelling TV, landed a total of 18 shows for the fall. Disney's Touchstone and Buena Vista studios did a lot of business beyond ABC and tallied 14 series.
Warner Bros., producing 14 fall series, is the only major studio that isn't sharing ownership rights on its programs with sponsoring networks. Indeed, on the CBS schedule, Warner Bros.' Citizen Baines will be the only show on the network of which Viacom doesn't own a piece.
"A lot of people have been talking about vertical integration and how impossible it is to do business with others now," says 20th Century Fox's Gary Newman. "From our point of view, that's frankly just an opportunity and not a problem."
The Disney-owned network added five new series to its fall lineup, pushed back its much hyped reality project The Runner to midseason and managed to upset ABC News' Barbara Walters at the same time. In an effort to keep its critically acclaimed drama Once and Again on the schedule, ABC is moving Walters' 20/20 out of its Friday 10 p.m. time slot in the fall and moving it to Wednesday nights for two months. The long-running newsmagazine is expected to return to its regular time slot in December, but it will be off the network during the November sweeps—a move that doesn't delight Walters.
ABC TV President Alex Wallau says Walters "had been initially more disappointed because she thought this represented some kind of statement about ABC News," which he maintains is not the case. But some major feathers were ruffled, no doubt about it. While announcing the Once and Again move at the upfront presentation, ABC Entertainment co-Chairman Stu Bloomberg felt obliged to add, "We are really grateful that Barbara Walters and [ABC News President] David Westin have allowed us to use that time period for a while in the fall. Clearly, we love Once and Again." (Walters, meanwhile, talked ominously about a window in her contract that would allow her to walk.)
Come December, the drama from co-owned Touchstone TV will probably move to 9 p.m. on Friday, and new drama Thieves will move into the 8 p.m. time slot vacated after reality series The Mole ends its 13-episode run.
The Survivor network attempted to show advertisers that it was about more than just the hit reality project—adding seven new series including a new weekly reality series Amazing Race. CBS also attempted to bring down its median age by dropping older-skewing series Diagnosis Murder and Walker Texas Ranger. "That's going to make our schedule a lot younger, a lot more affluent," says CBS TV CEO and President Les Moonves.
CBS also snuffed out its Wednesday-night movie franchise and vowed to make its Sunday movie block a mixture of theatricals and original films. The move of Touched by an Angel back to its original Saturday-night spot opened the door for CBS to put its highly anticipated Richard Dreyfuss-Marcia Gay Harden drama The Education of Max Bickford into the cushy 8 p.m. Sunday slot. "I can't remember the last series that had two Oscar winners in it," Moonves notes.
Fox executives unveiled their lineup aboard the USS Intrepid in New York's Hudson River and fittingly fired off an unusual shot. The network that has been gaining momentum faster than any of its rivals over the last year and a half is starting the season oddly with repeats of current Fox comedies at 8 p.m. each Wednesday. The repeat wheel seemed, at best, cable-like, but reporters wondered if Fox were holding back the time period and a fresh program, until the economic fog lifts.
Asked if the move could start a trend, Fox's Sandy Grushow says, "I do think at some point in time you are going to see a network take a night like Saturday where they can't get arrested and start double-running their product."
The network also renewed The X-Files for a ninth season, but without lead actor David Duchovny and maybe without Chris Carter as executive producer. Fox also added three new comedies and two new dramas, including Kiefer Sutherland in the unusual 24, which follows one day in the life of a CIA agent trying to avert a presidential assassination. The trick is that each week, the show will expose one hour of that "day" every week throughout its run.
Another unusual wrinkle: After its original run, Ally McBeal will not go into repeats. Fox will fill that Monday-night slot in the spring with new drama, Emma Brody.
At NBC's upfront presentation at Radio City Music Hall, new Entertainmennt President Jeff Zucker, the former executive producer of Today, told the audience that "what I want us to be is about excitement. I want there to be a sense where NBC is is the place where we are not afraid to try things."
But NBC seems a little more cautious than that. On his first fall schedule, Zucker has two weekly installments of Weakest Link, a third Law & Order series and a new sitcom starring Food Network staple Emeril Lagasse that seemed to be getting mixed reviews at the post-upfront party.
NBC also looked to shore up its strong Thursday-night lineup by adding new comedy Inside Schwartz. The series will move into the vaunted 8:30 p.m. slot between Friends and Frasier, where NBC has had little luck creating a show that really works. Zucker vows not to let this be the "walk your dog" slot any longer.
In its new season, Pax TV will air one of NBC's hottest shows—Weakest Link (Fridays at 8 p.m.) and one of its hotter prospects, Crossing Jordan (Tuesdays at 10 p.m., starting in January), a drama starring Jill Hennessy, formerly of Law & Order.
Ironically, as NBC executives are quick to point out, it was Paxson Communications President Jeff Sagansky who brought Weakest Link to NBC's attention in the first place. Pax has also licensed one of NBC's biggest hits of all time—Bonanza—for a prequel titled The Ponderosa.
Sagansky points to several factors that portend continued growth for his fledgling network—including double-digit ratings growth this season. And the ratings will be helped going forward by the network's expanded distribution this season to 82% coverage of the U.S.
The link with NBC is already paying dividends, he says, both nationally and locally, where most Pax stations are now airing local newscasts produced by NBC stations and affiliates. "We are starting to see 3.0 ratings and 5.0 ratings pop up in local markets around the country."
"We think this will be far, far and away the best schedule we've ever had," says UPN's Dean Valentine. "It will be far and away the most successful schedule we have ever had. ... We feel we made tremendous headway in where we are going."
UPN is excited about getting Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell from The WB and another Star Trek entry, Enterprise. The network only developed a limited number of series for the fall partly because of the network's unclear ownership status and anticipation of a few acquisitions.
UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan says producers are more impressed. "I've suddenly heard from more outside suppliers over the last several months than I've heard from in the past four years. There were just a number of elitist studios that just looked down their noses at us. I think the acquisition of Buffy, the investment of Star Trek in our schedule—was reassuring and also invigorating to the rest of the creative community and certainly to the people who work inside at UPN."
The WB lost Buffy and canceled Roswell but was still laughing—sort of.
The network developed a record 17 sitcom pilots and is launching five of them in the fall, including four new comedies on Friday alone. Joining Sabrina, The Teenage Witch on Fridays will be Off Centre; Maybe I'm Adopted; Men, Women & Dogs and country music/Broadway star Reba McEntire in Deep in the Heart.
"This was our strongest comedy-development class ever," says WB co-Entertainment President Susanne Daniels. "We did this because we think TV is a cyclical business and we think the time is now for comedy."
On the loss of Buffy, Daniels says, "Buffy will always be a show close to our hearts. ... But we saw the teen audience start to erode on Buffy and, typically, the longer you leave a show on the air, the older the audience gets. As we continue to position ourselves as the network for teens and young adults, it's up to us to embrace change."
—additional reporting by Dan Trigoboff
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