ABC upfront has a feeling of deja vu


The TV business is back to normal and so is ABC — that was the network's message to advertisers during its upfront presentation.

In May 2007, ABC announced an overhaul of Wednesday night with an all-new lineup of "Pushing Daisies," "Private Practice" and "Dirty Sexy Money."

Flash forward two years to ABC's Tuesday presentation in New York, where the new drama "Flash Forward" was a centerpiece: ABC again is starting from scratch on Wednesday with four new comedies and the new dramedy "Eastwick."

"It's almost two years since we have had a regular pilot season," ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson said during the 90-minute presentation at Lincoln Center. Several hours earlier, he said, "It's great to be back doing TV."

As a result of having a longer pilot cycle, McPherson called the current development slate the best since he has been at the network. Although advertisers were skeptical to make a judgment this soon, most seemed pleased by the trailers shown during the presentation, which also screened the entire pilot for Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd's new comedy "Modern Family" and the first act from "Flash Forward," the network's 8 p.m. Thursday anchor.

"They are ambitious with comedies when the nation needs a laugh," Campbell Mithun's John Rash said. "If they can get two of them to work, they'll significantly shore up their scheduling. In general, it was an ambitious but overall impressive slate."

Despite the fact that ABC — like other networks — pushed to trim budgets for modestly performing such shows as "Scrubs" and the canceled "Samantha Who?" McPherson touted the high production values of the network's new shows during the recession and took a shot at his competitors.

"In times like these, it's easy to hide, manage for margins or cut costs indiscriminately," he said. "But in times like these, people crave entertainment … and our focus is on spending on new shows."

On Mondays, "Dancing With the Stars" is expanding from 90 minutes to two hours and will offer a strong lead-in to sophomore drama "Castle," which showed more ratings heft when provided a direct boost from the reality show at the end of this season.

Mark Burnett's new reality competition "Shark Tank" will run with a "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" lead-in for the first few Tuesdays in August, after which it will settle into its regular 8 p.m. slot. The "Dancing" results show remains at 9 p.m., followed by Jerry Bruckheimer's latest crime procedural, "The Forgotten."

On Wednesdays, ABC's new two-hour comedy block is comprised of "Hank," starring Kelsey Grammer; "The Middle," starring Grammer's' "Back to You" co-star Patricia Heaton; "Modern Family"; and "Cougar Town," toplined by Courteney Cox.

While ABC successfully launched an all-new Wednesday drama lineup in 2007, debuting four new comedies is a bold move. "This is our biggest risk but our biggest upside as well," McPherson said.

He added that "Scrubs" and "Better Off Ted," while better known to viewers, were considered too male-skewing for the lineup. Both shows are planned for midseason.

A two-hour comedy block on Wednesday was a staple on ABC from 1987-2000 with such signature series as "Wonder Years," "Home Improvement" and "The Drew Carey Show."

Thursdays will lead off with "Flash Forward," followed by the return of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice." Leading into a female-driven lineup with a genre show could be considered risky.

"This was a big decision," said McPherson, who noted that "Flash Forward" is less sci-fi than an "intimate epic." He also pointed to the "Lost'" launch, also at 8 p.m.

Asked if "Grey's" actors Katherine Heigl and T.R. Knight will return next season, McPherson said, "They're both signed on; I can't say whether they will both be there," which drew a laugh.

Fridays will have "Supernanny," followed by "Ugly Betty" and "20/20." Sundays remain unchanged.

McPherson confirmed "Cupid" and "According to Jim" are canceled and that the network plans to run off the remaining "Surviving Suburbia" episodes in the summer.

Regarding "Scrubs," the executive said Zach Braff's six contracted episodes might be spread throughout the show's 13-episode order, with creator Bill Lawrence mulling whether he's going to do a complete creative reboot or merely segue to another generation of interns a la "ER."

As for the sci-fi update "V," it is envisioned as a four-season series with each season consisting of 13-22 episodes, McPherson said.

Of course, it wouldn't be an ABC upfront presentation without skewering zingers by Jimmy Kimmel.

"Every year we lie to you, and every year you come back for more," ABC's late-night host said. "Everything you've heard today, everything you're going to hear this week, is bullshit."

He also took on NBC for keeping "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno with a primetime show.

"ABC wanted to get Jay Leno," Kimmel said. "NBC said, 'No, we will not allow him to go to ABC, even if we have to destroy our own network to keep him.' "

James Hibberd reported from New York; Nellie Andreeva reported from Los Angeles.