Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"In fact she was self-involved, narcissistic and devoid of real relationships - essentially a bitch.": ABC 2007-08 schedule analysis

For the last few falls, ABC has headed in to upfronts week with the most buzzed about pilots. In 2001, everyone was excited to see what would happen with those crazy kids on Alias. They took a year off in 2002, but returned with the heavily hyped Karen Sisco in 2003 (and it's a shame this show isn't available on DVD). In 2004, of course, they added Desperate Housewives and Lost. No one thought they would work, but they did. And in the last two years, they had people excited about Invasion, Commander-in-Chief, Six Degrees and The Nine.

See a pattern?

None of those four shows are on the schedule anymore, but they're indicative of something. . .vaguely ABC-ish. You take an interesting concept, add a great cast, then find a way to make it unpalatable to a large audience, whether through constant creative changes (C-i-C), a deathly slow pilot (Invasion -- and I LOVED that pilot) or just completely missing the zeitgeist (The Nine). I liked a couple of these shows, but they felt like attempts to stretch cult hits into mass hits, since that's what ABC did in 2004. But it's very hard to do that, and ABC has struggled to find a way to grow past its 2004 troika (though it did very well with Ugly Betty and Brothers & Sisters this year and saw Men in Trees and October Road put up respectable performances). Reading what it believes to be the tea leaves, though, ABC has decided that audiences want escapism (just as NBC has decided we want LOTS OF SCI-FI and CBS has decided we want musicals). So escapism we shall get.

Before we get into the schedule, let's take a look at the event on the horizon that has everyone in Hollywood concerned -- the impending WGA strike. This article covers the issues involved in the strike better than I could here, but it all boils down to the writers wanting money from various ancillary markets (most notably the Internet) and the studios not wanting to give them that money. What could this mean for your favorite shows? Well, it could mean that the writers would stop writing scripts, meaning that there won't be any new episodes. During the last writers strike, networks shot shows using scripts for other ones that could be vaguely reworked (old cop show scripts were repurposed for new cop shows and so on). There are other options, of course. Networks could resurrect old shows that never saw the light of day (NBC has a big stockpile of sitcoms they ordered, then never aired). Dead pilots owned by the network could air. Networks could burn off episodes of shows they ordered but never aired the full runs of (for example, The Nine has several episodes waiting to air for ABC).

ABC and CBS, though, as the rich networks, are preparing for the writers strike by just loading up on STUFF. If they have enough new shows, they figure, they can get to around the middle of February next year, and by then, the labor issues will hopefully be resolved. Fox isn't as concerned because it can always coast off of House and Bones repeats and wait for Idol's return, while NBC and The CW are both too poor at the moment to do much of anything (though NBC can just air Deal or No Deal endlessly). So when you see a HUGE number of new shows for ABC and (at least for them) CBS, you'll know a little more why things are going this way.

Let's get into the schedule.

7 p.m.: America's Funniest Home Videos
8 p.m.: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
9 p.m.: Desperate Housewives
10 p.m.: Brothers & Sisters

Though this is weaker than in years past, it's still a strong night of television, and the growing success of Brothers & Sisters suggests that it may be able to prop up Desperate Housewives in the future, if need be. It would help if that show scored at the Emmys, which is certainly possible. I don't know what to say about Housewives, which defies my expectations every time. It was up significantly in the fall, spurred by a boost in quality. Then it fell way down in the winter after an extended hiatus (perhaps a sign of things to come). It hasn't quite recovered from that collapse, though the return of Marcia Cross' Bree may do that. As far as the other two hours, they're relatively low-cost ways to kick off the night, and both do rather well.

Predictions: I guess Housewives falls farther? Or it becomes the biggest hit on television again. Who can tell? B&S continues to grow, matching or even topping Housewives by the end of next season. And the other two will still exist.

8 p.m.: Dancing with the Stars performance
9:30 p.m.: Sam I Am (new show)
10 p.m.: The Bachelor

Dancing with the Stars is the savior of the ABC network. Without it, they're just one show hitting a rough patch in the ratings (as Lost did when it returned from its hiatus) away from being back in fourth place. With it, they have a cohesive schedule that keeps them relatively safe throughout the week. And since it's a shorter run than American Idol, they've been able to run it in the fall and spring without creating burnout (so far).

So the show will be back in the fall. Initially, it looked like ABC would program a drama in the 10 p.m. hour, but they've gone with The Bachelor instead. It's not a stupid move, since Bachelor does quite well post-Dancing, but many expected the network to go directly after the fraying CSI: Miami (instead, everyone seems to be taking it to CSI: NY, but more on that in a minute). Still, putting Bachelor at 10 provides a nice hammock for Sam I Am, ABC's highest-testing comedy in years. And they'll need that show to be a hit. Because Monday's post-DWTS could be a mess. Or just a never-ending string of Wife Swap reruns.

Predictions: I'm one of the few who thinks Sam will do well in this time slot. It won't be a massive hit, but it will be the first ABC sitcom to get a back nine in quite some time. The reality sandwich should help it until it's forced to go on its own (and we'll get to that).

8 p.m.: Cavemen (new show)
8:30 p.m.: Carpoolers (new show)
9 p.m.: Dancing with the Stars results
10 p.m.: Boston Legal

Already, some are bemoaning the arrival of Cavemen as a sign of the apocalypse, but people forget that the show is probably quite cheap and even bad buzz is buzz. If it's really that big of a trainwreck, there will assuredly be gawkers. Even Baby Bob, CBS' awful sitcom based around that talking baby, did quite well for its first season, landing a second season pickup.

Still, opening the night with two male-skewing sitcoms is a big risk. I get that ABC used to own the night in sitcom-land and they'd like to get back to that, but ABC has typically been known for its family sitcoms, and the network's current identity as chick show central doesn't guarantee a big sampling for male-skewing shows. It's a big risk. If it pays off, the network will look ingenious, but I think they would have been smarter going with some combination of family-oriented shows The Middle and Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office. Or perhaps they should have bid more heavily on Back to You.

The rest of the night is the same and should perform roughly similarly. It's too bad ABC didn't figure out a way to get DWTS to try to launch TWO new shows, since Legal performs the same with or without DWTS, but you can't have everything.

Predictions: Despite my couched confidence above, I just don't see Cavemen taking off, and I REALLY don't see Carpoolers taking off (though I still love you, Fred Goss). I've been wrong before, though, and the pendulum FEELS like it's swinging back toward comedy, so if it is, ABC's going to look very smart putting these here. The other two shows will perform roughly the same as they do right now.

8 p.m.: Pushing Daisies (new show)
9 p.m.: Private Practice (new show)
10 p.m.: Dirty Sexy Money (new show)

Remember when it looked like Lost might be able to dominate this night for years to come in the fall of 2005? Yeah, I don't either.

Wednesday is the night every network is chasing hungrily. With the fall of Lost (and its subsequent move to a midseason scheduling headache for the next three years) and the decline of Criminal Minds opposite American Idol, everyone thinks there's a wide open night waiting for them here. NBC put one of its most-buzzed pilots at 9 (The Bionic Woman, which at least sells itself in the title), and it seems likely that Fox will try something wacky here as well.

But ABC is taking the biggest risk, launching three new shows here. Granted, the centerpiece of the night is a spinoff of one of the biggest shows on television that got tremendous ratings for its backdoor pilot, but how much of that rating came from people entranced by the new characters and how much of it was from people wanting to see how Grey's Anatomy ended? The backdoor pilot got vicious reviews on the Web, but Web buzz can be misleading. What does seem likely is that people will give Addison two or three episodes to hook them, and if the show focuses less on the soapiness and more on the medical cases, that could work. But if Private Practice crumbles, it could bring down ABC's two most-promising new pilots with it. Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money seem like they could be two of the critical darlings of the new season, and without Private Practice, ABC has to frantically tap dance until it can slot Lost into that slot and hope it regains the viewers it lost with the move to 10.

Still, ABC has the best promotions department working now, and Stephen McPherson has promised to focus on launching Wednesday this fall. They turned Ugly Betty into an instant hit last year, and they could have similar success with the kooky romanticism of Pushing Daisies and the Dynasty throwback of Dirty Sexy Money.

While I'm at it, I might as well toss in a sad little shoutout to Eyes, canceled too quickly in that 2004-05 season. I really think that could have been the follow-up to Lost ABC looked for for so long.

Predictions: Not to seem like a shameless booster, but I'm betting ABC can launch this night, particularly if it can tighten up the quality on Private Practice (and that's a big if with Shonda Rhimes and Marti Noxon involved) and make it less of an Ally McBeal throwback. And I'll call it here first -- Pushing Daisies will be the next out-of-nowhere sensation. If ABC can get people to sample it, they'll come back for more.

8 p.m.: Ugly Betty
9 p.m.: Grey's Anatomy
10 p.m.: Big Shots (new show)

Before I launch in to anything, let me just point out that I think ABC was smart to not move its freshman sensations. Ugly Betty and Brothers & Sisters should do well at the Emmys, and DVD releases are just around the corner. If people are going to find them, they'll know where to look.

That said, Betty's ratings erosion over the season in the face of stiff competition has me worried. I love the show, but it doesn't seem to be people's first choice in the hour. ABC needs to find a way to make it the first choice, and I don't know how they do that.

Grey's will continue to do well, of course, and I kind of like putting Big Shots after it. In the past, the shows following Grey's would shed all of the male viewers Grey's gained. Maybe having a show ABOUT upscale males will convince them to stick around. Or maybe not. This, out of all of ABC's drama pilots, seems most likely to me to fail.

But, then, I haven't seen any of them.

Predictions: Ugly Betty continues to scrape along, but there's concern about its renewal at the end of the season. While Grey's is huge, the network finally abandons Big Shots and fills that slot with something else, perhaps even Lost.

8 p.m.: Men in Trees (new night and time)
9 p.m.: Women's Murder Club (new series)
10 p.m.: 20/20

Men in Trees turned into a surprise moderate hit here when it aired at the start of last season. It didn't do as well after Grey's, but it picked up some new viewers. Can the show survive a long hiatus and return to bring those viewers back to it? It's a relatively uncompetitive hour, but that's the big question for the night. Having a 27-episode run should help the show gain viewers, too.

The other big question is if CBS' apparent abandoning of Close to Home will result in ABC gobbling up the female detective lovers at 9. The series is based on a series of James Patterson books (apparently) that are quite popular, so it's a distinct possibility.

Also, what happens if Bingo explodes this Friday (as I actually sort of think it might)? That throws the whole schedule into question.

Predictions: ABC is fine with a solid second on the night to CBS' first. WMC gets a full-season pickup, and Men in Trees gains some new fans.

8 p.m.: College Football

This does well enough for the network, but I'm hoping they throw some original programming here at midseason. They made noise about doing so a few seasons ago but never did. Honestly, I'd even take a game show at this point. This night shouldn't be abandoned.

Predictions: College football fans will watch college football.

Finally, there are the midseason shows. Since nothing's set in stone yet, I won't predict anything for Cashmere Mafia, Eli Stone, October Road, Notes from the Underbelly, Miss/Guided or Lost. But that's a lot of product to slot. If there's a strike, ABC will look smart. If not, they'll have a lot of stuff to put on the air, particularly if they make any additional pickups. Though, to tell the truth, I think Oprah's Big Give is a pretty smart show to have on during the holidays, and I could see it catching on.

Coming up: Photos from the new ABC shows.

Tomorrow: Jon takes on CBS and asks "How much crime is too much crime?" Apparently, no amount of crime is too much if vampires are involved.

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