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ABC: Will More Pilots And More Stability Equal More Ratings?

5/16/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Steve McPherson, president of entertainment at ABC, pointedly defended the development season that was decimated by the writers' strike in his upfront address to advertisers at Lincoln Center last week.

Research and development is the "backbone of our business," he said. "This system is the best system we have."

McPherson's comments were in stark contrast to those of some of his broadcast network competitors, who have said that the strike presented an opportunity to dynamite the costly pilot season that yields a raft of shows, many that never see air.

Unintentionally underscoring his point, McPherson, whose presentation to advertisers was decidedly low-key, showed a clip of Will & Grace producers David Kohan and Max Mutchnick explaining the premise of their new comedy in development at ABC. Four Play is intended as a semi-autobiographical half hour about friends and business partners, one straight, one gay. Kohan and Mutchnick may be adept at writing comedy for television, but having them explain it was tedious at best.

ABC had only two new fall series to show advertisers: Life on Mars, a remake of a British series about a cop who gets transported back to the 1970s and miraculously grows longer sideburns on the ride there; and Opportunity Knocks, a game show that brings the host, production and prize truck to contestants' front doors.

Opportunity Knocks will air Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. leading into Dancing With the Stars. And Life on Mars will get the plum post-Grey's Anatomy slot Thursdays at 10 p.m.

The network announced three midseason series: The Goode Family, an animated comedy about a family of do-good vegans from King of the Hill creator Mike Judge that seems oddly out of place on female-skewing ABC; 18 new episodes of Scrubs, which is produced by ABC Studios and moves to the network having finished its run on NBC; and a beauty pageant reality series co-produced by Ashton Kutcher and Tyra Banks, for which the network offered little information.

It's thin (post-strike) gruel from a network that last year at this time announced a dozen new shows.

McPherson stressed the stability of ABC's schedule with proven hits including Grey's Anatomy, Dancing With the Stars and Desperate Housewives while noting that last year's new series truncated by the strike—including Pushing Daisies, Private Practice and Dirty Sexy Money, which stay put on Wednesday nights this fall—will get a second-season promotional push to remind viewers to re-invest.

It could be a tough sell for viewers—and advertisers staring down an increasingly on-demand viewing model and a looming recession. Perhaps that's why the unflappable Mike Shaw, head of ad sales at ABC, introduced an alphabet soup of enhanced engagement metrics and ad models to pinpoint value and offer advertisers more bang for their buck. Because, as Shaw correctly pointed out, "This year, not one marketing dollar can be wasted."

Boldest Move: With Jeff Zucker and others seemingly vilifying the pilot process, McPherson takes a stand for the costly ventures.

Best Bet: Sticking with its female-targeted sweet spot.

Biggest Risk: Will there be life on Life on Mars without David E. Kelley, who imported the show from Britain before leaving it?

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