Thursday, May 8, 2008

At Upfronts Next Week, Networks Will Tell Us What We’ll See Next Season

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Next week the broadcast networks will reveal to the world which programs will appear on their fall schedules. The execs will tell us which shows will live, and which will disappear from the prime-time landscape. The so-called upfront presentations in New York are intended for advertisers, but as an avid follower of television, they’re a big week for me. Kind of like a four-day version of the announcement of the NCAA March Madness brackets.

So here is my network-by-network look at what issues I am thinking about with next season's schedules.

NBC, Monday, May 12, 2008
NBC, which spent the 2000s plummeting from the top of the ratings pile to the depths of despair, has decided to take a different approach to scheduling, eschewing a traditional glitzy upfront presentation and moving towards a year-round schedule. Kudos to the network for trying to shake things up, although Fox found a few years ago that premiering new programs outside of the fall time period in which viewers are used to looking for new shows is a dicey proposition.

I took a look at the NBC schedule while researching this article, and I came to a stunning conclusion: Aside from the Thursday night sitcoms, I don’t watch a single prime-time offering on the network. (Well, I will occasionally catch an episode of “Deal or No Deal,” but it is far more likely that I’ll watch that game show in a CNBC rerun.) So it’s not like I’ll be waiting on the NBC announcement to see if any of my favorite shows have been cancelled. We know “Scrubs” is done on NBC, and “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “My Name Is Earl” are sure to be back. My first order of business will be to check out the sitcom (I’m assuming programmers won’t throw in another genre amidst the single-camera comedies) chosen to join the Thursday night lineup. I’ve also heard good things about “Chuck,” so I’ll be interested to see where it is placed on the schedule for its sophomore year. And maybe one of the new NBC offerings will get my attention.

I think what a lot of people (including me) are really waiting to see from NBC is if the rumors are true and Jimmy Fallon will be handed Conan O’Brien’s slot in 2009, when O’Brien shoves Jay Leno out of the “Tonight Show” host’s seat. Anything that leaves Leno out of a job is fine with me, although I think O’Brien and his quirky brand of comedy are more suited for the 12:30 slot.

ABC, Tuesday May 13, 2008
ABC poses an interesting dilemma for me. On the one hand, I watch more shows on ABC than on any other network. (As you may recall, when I compiled my list of five new shows I was looking forward to for Fall 2007, four of them were on ABC.) But the network took a big chunk of the drama out of its upfront months ago when it announced that the whole Wednesday lineup (“Pushing Daisies,” “Private Practice” and “Dirty Sexy Money”) would be back in the fall, as would “Samantha Who?” Clearly, ratings winners like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Brothers and Sisters” aren’t going anywhere, and I’m not sure many of us care if “Carpoolers” will return. And, sadly, I hold no hope that “October Road” and “Miss Guided” will make the grade (yeah, it’s a bad pun, so sue me) for 2008, but maybe I’ll get a rare nice surprise from a network. I’m just not counting on it.

So what is there to look for at the ABC presentation on Tuesday? Well, one super large thing: If you believe what you read (and I hope you do, since you’re reading this), ABC is considering taking on “Scrubs,” which has been cast off by NBC. While the ratings for “Scrubs” haven’t been strong in quite some time, the show is a winner in syndication and, surprise, Disney (who owns ABC) owns the show. So it might make financial sense to squeeze another year out of the critically beloved hospital-set sitcom. ABC is also supposedly looking to scoop up “The New Adventures of Old Christine” if the Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy is the loser in the CBS battle royale for a spot on Monday nights. “New Christine” never sucked me in, but if it’s part of an ABC sitcom night, I may just have to give the “Seinfeld” alum another chance.

CBS, Wednesday May 14, 2008
Speaking of CBS’s Monday night sitcom scramble, with “The Big Bang Theory” already getting the go-ahead for next year, the big question for me (and probably my biggest anxiety-inducer for the week) is whether the sorely underrated “How I Met Your Mother” survives for another year. The ratings have been stronger since the Britney Spears guest appearance, and “Mother” has the youngest median age (43) of any show on geezer-skewing CBS. Then again, there is always the chance that the network will look at its schedule, filled with one-hour police procedurals aimed at the AARP crowd, and say to itself, “What the hell are we doing with this edgy sitcom about a bunch of 30-year-olds hanging out in a bar? They don’t even solve crimes!” Let’s hope that CBS decides it needs at least one hip show on the air, if for no other reason than to avoid being completely ignored by the generations that don’t remember World War II rationing.

Since I’m still younger than the median age of “How I Met Your Mother,” I’m guessing I won’t be all that interested in the rest of the CBS schedule. But you never know.

CW, Thursday, May 15, 2008
The Franken-network created by the merger of the WB (now available as an online channel) and UPN is still fighting for viewers and attention. It got some real buzz last year with “Gossip Girl,” as well as some critical love for “Reaper.” Both shows were on my “maybe” list to check out when last year’s schedule was announced, but I never got around to seeing either. I’m guessing that won’t change for 2008-09, but I’m open to giving “Reaper” a whirl. Since I’m not a sci-fi guy (“Smallville” and “Supernatural”), nor do I follow the WWE or shows meant for teenagers (“Gossip Girl” and “One Tree Hill”), and since I generally steer clear of broad reality shows (no “Beauty and the Geek,” “America’s Next Top Model” or “Farmer Takes a Wife” for me), I will be watching for Thursday’s announcement for only one thing: Whether the quirky, funny and smart “Aliens in America” finds some way to survive.

It doesn’t look good. The single-camera sitcom got booted from its time slot this year, the CW shut down its comedy department in a reorganization a few months ago, and the network currently has only two half-hour comedies (“Everybody Hates Chris” is the other) on its prime-time strip. But I’m rooting for some kind of miracle. “Aliens in America” handled it’s potentially controversial subject matter (parents agree to take in a foreign-exchange student to provide a friend for their nerdy son, but the kid turns out to be a Pakistani Muslim) without resorting to racist stereotyping or giving in to the impulse to make the kid a 21st century Balki (Bronson Pinchot in “Perfect Strangers”). And it is genuinely funny, playing off an interesting and entertaining family dynamic.

FOX, Thursday, May 15, 2008
I have tended not to be a big fan of Fox. The network has a decent amount of shows I’ll watch on occasion, if I happen on to them at the right time (like “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader,” “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and “New Amsterdam”). And I enjoy the occasional Sunday night dip into the animated lineup of “Family Guy” (my wife is a big fan), “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill” and “American Dad.” Of course, Fox boasts two of the most successful programs on the air: “House,” which I admire even if I don’t watch it, and “American Idol,” which I, well, don’t. But of all the shows on the Fox schedule, only one has a spot on my TiVo Season Pass list: “Back to You.” And it’s no sure thing that it will be back for next season.

The comedy, starring comedy veterans Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and Fred Willard, and executive produced by old pros Christopher Lloyd (“Frasier”) and Steven Levitan (“Just Shoot Me”), carries the weight of being the last great hope for big, traditional, multi-camera sitcoms. With its heavy hitters (and, presumably, their heavy salaries to match), a lot of expectation was heaped on the program, and it was a hard mark to measure up to. But judged on its merits, “Back to You” is really funny, with a very sharp ensemble. The show certainly deserves another year to see if it can find a higher gear, and I think it will get the chance. But if the program is cancelled, I’ll be bummed.