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Handicapping the 2005-06 TV Season
That the major TV networks are desperate to snag the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic is no surprise.
But now even CBS, once the domain of unhip, older-skewing viewers, is making no pretense: It’s all about the under-50 set.
Last week marked the networks’ annual advertiser and media upfront presentations, four days of celeb-studded, gimmicky sessions, where the nets unveiled their schedules for the tube season ahead. (See UPN President Dawn Ostroff with a big yellow snake around her neck, just like Britney! See CBS honcho Les Moonves, in puppet form, punch a puppet version of NBC honcho Jeff Zucker! See the Desperate Housewives cast arrive glammed out in gowns and furs!)
And it’s a quote from CBS’s Moonves, explaining why the network pulled the plug on former Friday night hit Joan of Arcadia, featuring a teen who talks to God, in favor of a new drama in which a psychic Jennifer Love Hewitt talks to the dead, that sums up this year’s festivities.
“I think talking to ghosts may skew younger than talking to God,” explained Moonves, whose top-rated network will likely finish the season just behind Fox in viewers 18-49.
And God, apparently, isn’t the only one who gets kicked to the curb in the name of ratings. UPN, CBS’ sister station, is pinning its ratings wishes for next season on new Thursday night comedy Everybody Hates Chris, a Wonder Years-type series based on Chris Rock’s teen years in Brooklyn.
Rock took the stage at UPN’s upfront on Thursday and told the crowd, “Everybody Loves Raymond, Everybody Hates Chris. White man out, black man in. See how it works?”
Jokes aside, UPN is hoping that’s exactly how it works, as one of the biggest time-slot battles of next season will take place Thursdays at 8 p.m. Rock’s show, which will include narration by the former Saturday Night Live star, goes head-to-head with CBS’s Survivor, the WB’s Smallville, Fox’s The O.C., ABC’s Alias and NBC’s Joey.
“It’s a really, really important night for the movie studios, and a ton of money flows into that night with movie advertisements,” says Bill Koenigsberg, president and CEO of Horizon Media/New York. “It didn’t surprise me that no one was willing to give up ground, that everyone wanted to stick to their guns there, because it’s such a huge night. That’s where a lot of the dollars are going to fall.”
Speaking of the ratings-beleaguered former Friend, poor Joey, which was the buzz of last season’s upfronts, took jabs from almost everyone at this year’s presentations, including his own network.
“I think its storytelling was very disappointing,” NBC’s Zucker told the New York Times last week. “There was and continues to be a lot of residual good will toward that character.”
Still, NBC, the erstwhile comedy king that is on track to finish this season’s ratings race in fourth place, gave Joey another go, pairing it with the increasingly tired Will & Grace as lead-ins for a fourth season of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice.
Shows that weren’t as lucky and got the axe included Taye Diggs’ Kevin Hill and Star Trek: Enterprise at UPN, CBS’ Judging Amy and JAG, the WB’s Jack & Bobby (one of last season’s most buzzed-about new shows), ABC’s Eyes and Blind Justice, and NBC’s family drama American Dreams.
Among the programming trends for the 2005-06 season are:
– Lost Knock-Offs
Insiders were predicting that the networks would roll out a plethora of Desperate Housewives clones for next season, but it’s actually ABC’s other monster hit that inspired copycats, including NBC’s Fathom (scientists investigating mysterious creatures who live in the sea), the WB’s Supernatural (brothers who travel around investigating unexplained phenomenon), CBS’s Threshold (a team of Navy investigators assembled to investigate an alien spacecraft found in the Atlantic Ocean) and ABC’s Invasion (aliens trigger natural disasters while plotting to take over the planet).
– CSI Knock-Offs:
If prime-time characters aren’t investigating otherworldly type beings next season, they’re investigating crimes. The slew of new crime and/or investigation series include Fox’s Bones, about a forensic anthropologist/novelist, and The Gate, about detectives in San Francisco’s Deviant Crime Unit; CBS’ Criminal Minds, about an elite squad of FBI profilers assigned to especially twisted crimes; and ABC’s The Night Stalker, a remake of the ’70s drama about a newspaper crime reporter who investigates stories with supernatural twists, and The Evidence, which opens by flashing the evidence in a crime, allowing viewers to follow along and try to solve the case with the cops.
“I’m surprised to see this glut of investigative dramas out there,” Koenigsberg says. “You’ve got Navy SEALs shows and Pentagon shows and crime investigative shows and FBI shows. I think the reason for that is the success of off-network shows to cable, like CSI and Law & Order. There’s a significant revenue stream there, with those shows coming out and then switching over to cable, which is a new avenue of profit.”
– Bold Time-Slot Maneuvering:
The Thursday at 8 p.m. traffic jam is a bit of scheduling where, unfortunately, at least one or two shows are likely to become ratings casualties. Another time slot making TiVo-ing a necessity: Tuesdays at 9 p.m., home of CBS’ The Amazing Race, Fox’s House, ABC’s Commander-in-Chief and NBC’s My Name is Earl and The Office.
And the nets have planned some other risky moves that will prove pure genius or pure disaster next season: Fox surprised many with its renewal of critically beloved comedy Arrested Development, and surprised insiders further by moving the show from Sunday to Monday night at 8. The network also moved aging comedy Malcolm in the Middle from Sundays to the tough Friday night schedule. ABC, meanwhile, swapped Lost from 8 to 9 on Wednesdays, moved Alias to Thursdays and shifted David E. Kelley’s Sunday night hit Boston Legal from its cushy post-Desperate Housewives position to Tuesdays at 10, while NBC ousted The West Wing from Wednesday night and moved it to Sundays at 8.
– Bruckheimer Rules:
Still. Jerry Bruckheimer produced four of the top 20 shows this season. As of next season, he will have a record 10 shows on the networks, including six on CBS. Among his new series are his first comedy, the WB’s Modern Men, about three single pals who hire a life coach to help them get dates; CBS’ Close to Home, about a mom/prosecutor; the WB’s Just Legal, a drama about a teen prodigy attorney with a crabby mentor (Miami Vice’s Don Johnson); and NBC’s E-Ring, a military drama set at the Pentagon and costarring Dennis Hopper and Benjamin Bratt.
– Reality TV on Life Support?
Practically since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire helped spark the prime-time reality craze, industry types have been predicting its imminent death. And while the fall schedules for next season still include plenty of unscripted hits–Survivor, The Amazing Race, America’s Next Top Model and yet another spin on The Bachelor–Fox, the network known for its reliance on short-term ratings grabbers in the past, has swept such fare out the door. Aside from the Saturday night Cops/America’s Most Wanted lineup, Fox has scheduled no reality shows until the next installment of American Idol in January.
Other new series that generated buzz among advertisers at the upfronts: NBC’s My Name Is Earl, a sitcom about a petty thief who decides to change his evil ways and make amends with those he’s wronged after winning the lottery, and the Martha Stewart-hosted version of The Apprentice; Fox’s Headcases, starring Chris O’Donnell as a lawyer who suffers a nervous breakdown, and Prison Break, a drama about an architect who gets himself thrown in jail to help his imprisoned brother escape; ABC’s Commander-in-Chief, starring Geena Davis as the first female President, and Emily’s Reasons Why Not, a comedy starring Heather Graham as a self-help author who can’t follow her own advice; and the WB’s Twins, a comedy about two sisters (including Roseanne’s Sara Gilbert) thrown together to run their family’s lingerie business, and Bedford Diaries, a drama from Oz creator Tom Fontana, about students in a human sexuality course at a liberal arts college in New York.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of high-profile pilots that didn’t make the cut, including Alias and Lost producer JJ Abrams’ The Catch, an ABC bounty hunter show starring Alias’ Greg Grunberg and old-school comedian Don Rickles; NBC’s Notorious, starring Tori Spelling in an autobiographical comedy; and Fox’s New Car Smell, starring Brooke Shields in a comedy about a used-car dealership; Queen B, a comedy starring Alicia Silverstone; and Windfall, starring Luke Perry in a drama about a group of friends who win the lottery. And one pilot that was looked over by NBC–Old Christine, a comedy with Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a single mom–was later picked up by CBS for its midseason schedule.
“I was impressed with the new Chris Rock show,” says Koenigsberg. “My Name is Earl on NBC is getting an awful lot of good buzz and it seems like it could be a breakthrough hit. Also E-Ring on NBC and Geena Davis as the President on ABC, there are some strong indications that it could be a breakout show as well.”
“[But] I don’t see the next Friends or Frasier or Seinfeld. I think it was a very safe route in terms of programming development.”
And a prediction on that big Thursday at 8 battle?
“I think Survivor will garner the biggest ratings,” says Koenigsberg. “And then I think it’s going to be a toss-up between Joey and Alias.”