Thursday, March 16, 2006

Super TV preview: ABC

So why am I attempting such foolhardiness? Because I can, that's why. And also because if we can predict what next fall is going to look like, those of us who want to work in TV (as writers or critics) can get a leg up.

ABC, of course, has been riding high. It's got three MONSTER hits that are only in their second seasons. It's got another monster hit that skews a bit old. It's got a lot of players that have shown promising growth.

But it's also got a lot of weak spots. Its schedule isn't the monster that CBS' schedule is. There are a lot of holes. And the network doesn't have a game-changing hit like American Idol to raise all its boats (so to speak). Dancing with the Stars doesn't skew NEARLY young enough to be that sort of performer for them. So the network soldiers on, gamely plugging holes with America's Funniest Home Videos and the special brand of "heartwarming" reality show it does so well.

Check out the many iterations of ABC's schedule here. (This schedule conveniently ignores the one outright flop ABC unleashed this fall, Night Stalker.)

ABC has another problem. It had two dramas that started out HUGE this fall, looking to keep ABC's hot drama streak alive. Then, both faded. One (Commander-in-Chief) got away from the "She's the President! She's also a mom!" style adventures that made it a hit (I was never a huge fan of the show, but turning it into an even MORE watered-down West Wing clone didn't help). The other (Invasion) started too slowly for many, fading over time, even though it turned into incredibly compelling viewing.

Last year, ABC renewed a GLUT of marginally performing comedies and sent two procedural dramas to midseason. The network, quite simply, lacks a solid sitcom and a crime procedural. When you've got one of these things, you're in good shape. CBS could schedule CSI repeats in EVERY time slot and compete for at least a month or so. And so, ABC renewed things that were close to syndication length (Less Than Perfect) and things that were never going to be hits (Rodney), hoping to find something that clicked with the public.

ABC DOES have one promising sitcom: Sons & Daughters. The show is critically acclaimed and outperforms its leadin, According to Jim. Unfortunately, it's in a BRUTAL timeslot and loses to The Unit and House. Still, expect ABC to keep this one around.

I actually think ABC will ditch all of its other sitcoms on the bubble. They've got 25 sitcoms in development, most of them promising. They may keep According to Jim around, but that show is on its last legs and is already making them syndication dollars.

Now we come to the two dramas sure to be on the bubble at the end of the season (if either The Evidence or What About Brian becomes a huge hit, expect Invasion and C-i-C to die quiet deaths). ABC's leadership seems to LIKE Invasion more, and, indeed, it's the better show, but will it EVER find an audience at this late date? It would seem the prime audience for the show has sampled it and moved on.

C-i-C is a different matter. Even though the constant shuffling of producers has diluted the show's appeal, it could rebound with a return to its roots and a less merciless timeslot.

So let's take a look at what I expect to happen next year. Let me preface this by saying that I KNOW NOTHING. I don't talk to network insiders. I just hear the same gossip as you do.

First, a link to ABC's pilots. What makes this DOUBLY hard is that ABC and NBC both have PHENOMENAL development this year. Great stars, great writers, great directors. But these are my picks for the shows that will make it, based on some educated guesswork.

Sunday:
7 p.m. EST/PST: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (new time slot)
8 p.m.: Commander-in-Chief (new night and time slot)
9 p.m. : Desperate Housewives
10 p.m.: Brothers & Sisters (new series) (Untitled Shonda Rhimes project occupies this slot at midseason)

Commander-in-Chief ALMOST ended up in that timeslot last year, before it was decided that would leave Extreme Makeover: Home Edition too vulnerable. However, XM:HE is a proven hit with families, and moving it an hour earlier isn't going to deplete that audience. C-i-C can play to families too (indeed, it does better ratings-wise when it does so). DH was a gamechanger, completely altering the landscape of Sunday nights in primetime, so there's no need to move it now. Brothers & Sisters is not a series I'm terribly excited for, but it IS a soap, and it's got a cast with lots of female appeal (featuring BOTH Calista Flockhart and Rachel Griffiths), so it should mesh well with DH. Shonda Rhimes was the creator of the last show ABC threw in this slot at midseason, Grey's Anatomy. While I don't think her new show about female journalists sounds all that good, ABC will want to make her happy because. . .

Monday:
8 p.m.: Untitled Patricia Heaton project (new series)
8:30 p.m.: Pink Collar (new series)
9 p.m.: Grey's Anatomy (new night and time slot)
10 p.m.: Men in Trees (new series)

I think ABC is going to move Grey's Anatomy. It's a mega-hit. But it could be EVEN BIGGER an hour earlier. And Desperate Housewives ain't going anywhere. Grey's now has a fan base of its own, and a properly structured cliffhanger should bring them over a night later to female-friendly Mondays. Patricia Heaton, of course, was part of Everybody Loves Raymond, which was a hit on Mondays, and her new sitcom has some good writers and Justine Bateman to boot. Pink Collar is a single-camera show set in an office full o' females, featuring Alicia Silverstone. They're both good fits together and with Grey's. Men in Trees is from the fine comedy writer Jenny Bicks. Also, it's set in Alaska, and this is the time slot where Northern Exposure saw such success. All in all, it's a night of lighthearted fun for the XX set.

Tuesday:

8 p.m.: A Day in the Life (new series)
8:30 p.m.: Sons & Daughters
9 p.m.: 60 Minute Man (new series) (October Road at midseason)
10 p.m.: Boston Legal

Commander-in-Chief leveled off. The comedy block didn't work. It's a shame, but Tuesdays, a night ABC once used to OWN have been ceded to CBS and Fox (when Idol is on especially). ABC isn't going to roll over and play dead, though. A Day in the Life should be an easy series to sell to the target 20/30something audience (what with its tale of two kids getting married and its 24-esque format). Sons & Daughters has already proved (slightly) popular with that audience. I predict ABC tries to pull an Office with it, promoting the show in front of it and throwing S&D on iTunes to see what happens. I really don't know WHAT to expect out of the 9 p.m. hour, except I suspect they'll throw one of the two dramas I have listed in there. And Boston Legal is performing well in that time slot. No reason to move it.

Wednesday:

8 p.m.: George Lopez
8:30 p.m.: In Case of Emergency (new series)
9 p.m.: Lost
10 p.m.: Nine Lives (A House Divided at midseason)

I finally just threw up my hands in the 8 p.m. hour. George Lopez performs relatively well (especially among one of ABC's key demographics -- Hispanics). The network HAS to air In Case of Emergency (contractually obligated), and tonight seems like as good a night as any. Lost, of course, is still a hit (though Idol takes a chunk out of it that ABC probably wishes it didn't). And Nine Lives is from the creator of Without a Trace. He figured out what to put on after CSI. He can figure out what to put on after Lost.

Thursday:

8 p.m.: Dancing with the Stars
9:30 p.m.: Help Me Help You (new series)
10 p.m. Primetime Live

I thought ABC might save Dancing with the Stars for the winter again, but my friend Jon has a point: It could be fall's American Idol. So it shall sit there. Help Me Help You is a comedy featuring Ted Danson, so that seems right up DWTS' older audience's alley. And Primetime isn't budging. I have no idea what would land here at midseason though.

Friday:

8 p.m.: Dancing with the Stars Results Show
9 p.m.: Supernanny/Wife Swap
10 p.m. Invasion (new night and time slot)

I don't ACTUALLY think Invasion will end up here. I just don't think that ABC will want to appear so weak as to schedule new series ALL OVER the place. The other two seem like safe bets on a night when most other networks are checking out.

What are the odds of this? To tell you the truth, if I get even one of these right, I will be thrilled. We'll see how I did in May.

Would ABC be this dangerous? Honestly, this is the point in their growth when they need to sink or swim. By taking risks to shore up the first half of the week, ABC could make itself a bigger player on every night but Tuesday.

Some other pilots I could see making the cut, either for the fall or midseason:

52 Fights
Day Break
Enemies
Him & Us
Hollis & Rae
Jump
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Six Degrees
Traveler
Ugly Betty
Untitled Bonnie Hunt project

And no, that's not EVERY other pilot. Nyah.

Up next time: CBS, the easiest network to predict.

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