Network Upfronts Extravaganza – ‘ABC’ Preview

ABC is in a unique situation this year when it comes to pilots. On one hand, the network has seen some success this year and in past years, and the network has remained a solid demographics performers even with dips in viewership for its flagship shows like Lost or Desperate Housewives. However, outside of shows like Grey’s Anatomy the network actually saw a series of failures over the span of the year with both dramas and comedies. Judging from its pilot order, ABC is going with what I’d like to call a shotgun approach, something which is both good and bad for the network’s future. Either way, next season will be a test for the ABC brand: is there a cohesive image which can unite wildly different shows together under one banner?

2006/2007 Pilot Season

ABC had a fantastic pilot season two years ago, when Lost and Desperate Housewives emerged as huge hits for the network in September, and Grey’s Anatomy debuted in the Spring. Last year, the network shook things up, and the result was seven(Yes, seven) failed pilots. The network fumbled the initial success of Commander-in-Chief, leading to its downfall, and Invasion failed to see any success airing after Lost. However, all many saw was the growing success of Grey’s Anatomy, and the Super Bowl episode that sent it into the stratosphere. Excluding surprise pickup (and guaranteed goner after this season) What About Brian, all shows which made it to series for ABC that year were gone a year later, and this year was a do-over: a chance for them to find a new batch of shows which could become the next Grey’s Anatomy.

Well, nobody can say that ABC didn’t try pretty darn hard. They unleashed seven new dramas this season, along with a staggering six comedies: that’s a total of 13 new series. And, while it wasn’t quite as devastating as the previous year, only five of the shows have been officially renewed for next season. I guess the shotgun approach had to hit something.

The successes were few and far between, but they were still present. Ugly Betty (It’s not a comedy, ABC, no matter what you tell me) would probably be considered the biggest hit from the perspective of early season buzz. Original scheduled for Friday nights, the series was moved to Thursdays and debuted well against Survivor and helped ABC (Along with Grey’s) create a strong Thursday lineup. The show, starring America Ferrera as the titular assistant, is a dramedy based on a telenovela that won itself two Globen Globes (Ferrera for Comedy Actress, Comedy Series), and a lot of buzz for the network. However, the show has suffered from a steady ratings decline over the past months, and its momentum is questionable.

The other three renewed dramas took a less flashy approach: Brothers and Sisters debuted after Desperate Housewives, performed well after Desperate Housewives, won its timeslot in key demos, and basically just kept on truckin’. The result was a lack of press and flashy advertising, but also the ability for Greg Berlanti to swoop in and make the show into a contender, and its second season could surprise some people. Similarly, Men in Trees started on Friday nights, and saw fairly solid results. However, after the failure of another drama left the slot open, it was selected to air behind Grey’s Anatomy and saw an immediate bump in viewership.

That bump has given the show its second season, even after it was booted from the schedule early in order to make way for the other likely to be picked up drama, October Road. Debuting at midseason, the show performed well after Grey’s (Performing the best out of its occupants (Trees, Six Degrees) amongst younger viewers), and has therefore been given a chance to come back ala What About Brian last season. I don’t expect it will go far, but it serves an important lesson: if you want to succeed at ABC, come in late after the other failures are gone and they’re desperate.

Because, you see, the rest of the slate of ABC drama with much more potential creatively have to sit back and wonder what could have been. The most high-profile of these dramas is The Nine. Airing after Lost on Wednesday’s, this high-concept drama offered a lingering question of what took place during that bank heist, and required an audience that paid attention to detail…and never found it. The show left its viewers hanging after ABC prematurely pulled the plug, never really giving the drama the right amount of time to settle in. The same goes for a great deal of its other dramas: Six Degrees suffered a similar fate (although more deserved), and I expect that newcomer Traveler will feel the same sting in the coming weeks.

However, most interesting on the failed drama side is Day Break, which had the tough task of filling in for Lost during its multi-month hiatus. The show was, certainly, facing tough competition in Criminal Minds, but its debut was marked by incredibly low ratings which seemed almost unfair to the series. It was given only a few weeks before being pulled by ABC, and like The Nine suffered the fate of most serial dramas: people refused to pay attention. Serial dramas just weren’t being watched, and in the process I believe the network lost two decent concepts which could have gone somewhere.

However, while dramas was a mixed bag, comedies were another story: failure was the name of the game. Other than midseason Notes from the Underbelly, which received a surprising pickup, the rest of the crop fell flat on its face: Knights of Prosperity, Big Day, Help Me Help You (Even with a Dancing with the Stars Lead-in), In Case of Emergency. All of them felly by the wayside, failing to engage viewers. The pickup of Notes from the Underbelly, much like the renewal of Jake in Progress in 2005/2006, seems like an attempt to claim some sort of success out of a disastrous comedy development season. Considering that Jake in Progress only aired a single episode last season, I don’t think that there’s much hope for Notes either.

So, ABC enters into next season with four hour-long drama/comedies, and a single sitcom from this season. The shotgun was mildly effective, clearly, but the real question is whether the rest of the ABC lineup is up to snuff.

The Returning Shows

ABC has a history with relying heavily on its biggest hits, a history created in the span of a single season: The Millionaire Era. They took Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and turned it into a summer hit, only to drive it into the ground in the normal season and ruin its potential. Well, ABC, I’m here to stage and intervention: you’re driving Dancing with the Stars into the ground.

Their schedule is currently filled with 3 ½ hours of Dancing with the Stars every week. An hour and a half performance show on Mondays, an hour-long recap show on Tuesday at 8, and then an hour-long results show at 9. I’m getting flashbacks to Millionaire, and it’s not a good thing. They’ve become, at this late point in the season, over-reliant on this single show to bring them success. That needs to change in the fall.

The other big question mark is the performance of returning shows: Grey’s Anatomy has only grown from a ratings perspective, while Desperate Housewives has suffered ratings decline but has remained a powerful force on Sunday nights.

Of course, Lost is perhaps the biggest question here, and the reality is that Lost remains a successful television program with high ratings and strong viewership. It isn’t the powerhouse it once was, do not get me wrong, but it is still successful enough that ABC is keeping it around for three more seasons. However, it will not be starting until February, which gives the network some room to move around in the Fall before it comes back full time.

Other than these three, and the pilots held over, the network really doesn’t have too much of a power base. Boston Legal performed well in its Tuesday timeslot, and will be returning in the fall, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition continued its very strong performance on Sundays. Wife Swap is still kicking around, but I figure it’s best saved for midseason.

On the other side of the coin the network is losing two of its sitcoms which have run forever even while no one cared: According to Jim and George Lopez are both likely to end this year, which results in some sitcom openings. And, ABC knows this, and has ordered ten pilots to series.

The 2007/2008 Pilots

Variety – Pilot Watch – ABC

Although ABC has officially announced its picked up shows, the network still isn’t much of a decider, apparently; they want to have all of their options open, which is why they’ve gone ahead and ordered ten pilots (The most of any network thus far). Sure, they need some shows to fill in some holes within their schedule, but at the same time they need to narrow their search down just a little. It really is a shotgun approach, and shows a level of indecisiveness I don’t believe is healthy. They really tended to pick pilots in pairs of two, hoping that one succeeds even if the other fails.

Case in point: Perfect Gentlemen and The Cashmere Mafia. One is about four high-powered male CEOs in New York City. The other is about high-profile manhattan women who perform well in their jobs.. They’re more or less the exact same concept (One a male version of Sex & the City, the other a ripoff [From its producer, Darren Star] of the same show), but each is tailored to a different side of the audience. ABC couldn’t just decide whether they wanted to appeal to males or females, but felt that they had to offer both alternatives. I think that Perfect Gentlemen sounds better, only because it has Michael Vartan (Alias) and Cashmere Mafia has this in its press release:

Ambition always comes with a price. Consistently outpacing their male colleagues and husbands in salary and title, they also have to watch out for scheming bitches eager to bring them down.

Yeah, sorry, Perfect Gentlemen wins this battle.

IMDB – Perfect Gentlemen, Cashmere Mafia

TheFutonCritic – Perfect Gentlemen, Cashmere Mafia

Meanwhile, the pairs don’t stop there. Greg Berlanti, showrunner on Everwood throughout its run, signed a deal with ABC television when he came on to basically save Brothers & Sisters from a creative rut. The result was both a quality show, and a very good reputation within the network. So good, even, that they couldn’t decide which of his pilots to pick up, so they just decided to pick up both of them. Eli Stone, the first pilot, is about a lawyer who becomes a prophet, and features Victor Garber (Alias) as a high-powered attorney for the second straight year. The other, Dirty Sexy Money, surrounds a young lawyer (Honestly, I don’t think even Berlanty expected them to pick up both lawyer shows) who inherits a Kennedy-esque clan of rich folk and is forced to defend them against tabloids. It stars Peter Krause (Six Feet Under) and Donald Sutherland (A lot of stuff), so I honestly am going to ignore its press release entirely and assume it has greater potential than that. But still, ABC, you need to pull yourself together. These shows are so similar that picking up both of them was fairly ridiculous, especially since ABC is likely to just burn one of them off too fast and it will be wasted.

IMDB – Eli Stone, Dirty Sexy Money

TheFutonCritic – Eli Stone, Dirty Sexy Money

Now, there’s already one show about powerful women, but there’s still yet two more. I’m going to lump the Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Private Practice in here, with a few caveats. First, ABC, the show’s recent ratings success was not a proper barometer. The show being interspersed with Grey’s forced us to watch it, but you have no proper idea of what people really thought. Personally, I believe that the spinoff seemed decent because Grey’s has been so terrible recently; when the show ends up on its own, I’m not entirely sure what I’ll think about it. However, in the end I place it here because it’s all about girl power, with Addison taking the lead and with relationships obviously taking a commanding role.

However, the other show in this category is just bizarre. From Brett Ratner (Who went from Prison Break to X-Men to…this) comes the Women’s Murder Club, which stars Angie Harmon as a detective who gets tired of the existing justice system (who doesn’t?) and bands together with female friends to use their girl power to solve crimes. These two show are at least different from one another, but I think that both are quasi-mistakes for the network. The latter, especially, just sounds a bit too corny for my liking, although procedural dramas remain big right now and Angie Harmon is due for her post-Law & Order success any time now.

IMDB – Private Practice, Women’s Murder Club

TheFutonCritic – Private Practice, Women’s Murder Club

And that leaves one drama left, and it’s a doozie: Pushing Daisies. On one hand, looking at the credits for the drama, I am actually quite interested. It comes from producer Bryan Fuller, creative mind behind Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me, and writer of my favourite Heroes episode, “Company Man.” And, the cast is half decent, with the lovable Chi McBride and Kristen Chenoweth. However, then you read the premise: I’ll sum it up, but it’s basically that the lead character can bring people back from the dead briefly so they can tell him who killed them. However, he did the same for his childhood sweetheart and she stayed alive…but if he ever touched her again she’ll vanish forever. The premise doesn’t catch me, but Fuller’s pedigree and the press release’s comparison to Big Fish give me the sense that this could be a quirky drama that might just work with the right touch.

IMDB – Pushing Daisies

TheFutonCritic – Pushing Daisies

The drama side is interesting for what got cut, also, including David E. Kelley’s adaptation of the BBC’s Life on Mars, as well as the high-profile adaptation of the British hit The Footballer’s Wives. I guess it wasn’t a great year for across the pond television in the eyes of ABC.

Now, onto the comedy side of things, where two shows are your standard laughers: Carpoolers is about four males (Again with the all one gender casting, ABC!) who are in a carpool, but comes from Bruce McCulloch (Kids in the Hall) and the Russo Brothers (Great comedy directors on Arrested Development) and stars Jerry O’Connell. Sam I Am, on the other hand, stars the lovely Cristina Applegate as a women who gets amnesia, and then discovers the people at her job hate her. It’s not high concept, sure, but she’s charming and the premise has mild potential; plus, it also stars Jean Smart (24’s Martha Logan) and Melissa McCarthy (Sookie on Gilmore Girls), so it’s got a decent cast. On the whole? Could be much, much worse.

IMDB – Carpoolers, Sam I Am

TheFutonCritic – Carpoolers, Sam I Am

And then we get to the worst of them all, and what will go down as the absolute worst pilot pickup for the year: Cavemen. The fact that ABC even commissioned a pilot based on the Geico Caveman commercial is ridiculous, but to pick it up over its other comedy options (Including a congressional comedy executive produced by Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz) is just ludicrous. ABC has stooped to a new low with this one: the pilot has been torn apart by those who have seen it, and the show has absolutely zero potential. Just because you got decent ratings out of According to Jim doesn’t mean that you need to find its closest equivalent (“Caveman = Jim Belushi? Close enough.” – ABC Executive). The show is a plague on their schedule, and I severely hope that its failure teaches them a few lessons and shows them the error of their ways.

IMDB – Cavemen

TheFutonCritic – Cavemen

YouTube – Cavemen

The Bottom Line

ABC has put together a flawed set of pilots, and basically have fired a shotgun at the viewing public. They are bombarding us with just about everything they could, hoping that something will stick. The reality is that very little of it has a chance to engage an audience when there’s so many similar shows on your own network, yet along other networks. Their fall schedule will lack Lost, which will give ABC a chance to experiment a bit more. I’m hoping that the result is some serious realizations regarding their future, and a solid look forward.

Oh, and the quick and speedy cancellation of Cavemen. The last thing the network needs right now is more Cavemen. ABC has yet to regain the glory found two seasons ago, and this lineup is unlikely to find it for them. However, at the very least, they can hope for a solid grounding that can allow them to rise next season.

Projected Schedule

Mondays

8pm – October Road

9pm – Dancing with the Stars

10pm – Private Practice

Tuesdays

8pm – Eli Stone

9pm – Dancing with the Stars: Results

9:30pm – Sam I Am

10pm – Boston Legal

Wednesdays

8pm – Cavemen

8:30pm – Carpoolers

9pm – Pushing Daisies

10pm – Dirty Sexy Money

Thursdays

8pm – Ugly Betty

9pm – Grey’s Anatomy

10pm – The Cashmere Mafia

Fridays

8pm – Women’s Murder Club

9pm – Men in Trees

10pm – Perfect Gentlemen

Sundays

7pm – America’s Funniest Home Videos

8pm – Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

9pm – Desperate Housewives

10pm – Brothers & Sisters

Note: Notes from the Underbelly will be kept for midseason, or when one of the other comedies (Cavemen, clearly) bombs and needs a replacement. I’m still not convinced about much of the 8pm timeslots, but it’s the best I can do with such a repetitive lineup. The schedule would have to chance when Lost returns, but that really depends on what occurs up to that point.

So, can ABC put together a schedule which can challenge CBS and FOX once again? Or will their shotgun approach yield them only a superficial wound in the armour of the viewers and demographics champs? We’ll see on Tuesday, May 15th, when ABC announces its final lineup.

1 Comment

Filed under ABC, Brothers & Sisters, Cavemen, Dancing with the Stars, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, Lost, Private Practice, Ratings, Sex & The City, Television, Traveler, Ugly Betty, Upfronts

One response to “Network Upfronts Extravaganza – ‘ABC’ Preview

  1. Pingback: Network Upfronts Extravaganza: 'ABC' Fall Schedule 2007/2008 « Cultural Learnings

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