Fall TV's Biggest Battles
Comedy rules as the networks play it safe and the season's major time-slot showdowns are set.
With more than $9 billion up for grabs, the weeklong TV upfront presentations were dominated not by big creative swings and top drama producers but rather the promise of comedy.
In a bid to replicate the early success of Fox's New Girl and the continued strength of ABC's Modern Family, a vast majority of the 2012-13 season's new half-hour offerings feature female voices or fractured families. There were 16 ordered in all, with the tone of Fox's brother-sister comedy Ben and Kate (from 20th Century Fox TV) and the potential broadness of NBC's veterinarian-focused Animal Kingdom (from NBC's Universal Television) garnering the most attention.
Female viewers, says Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox TV, which produces New Girl and Modern Family, "are more inclined to give something new a shot, but we're also interested in their husbands, brothers, sons and fathers." Still, others voice concerns about the financial advantages of femme-focused fare, which historically struggles in syndication, and the rising costs of single-camera work. A first-year multicam sitcom typically costs $1.3 million to $1.6 million to produce, while a single-cam costs $1.8 million to $2.2 million -- and the latter rarely matches the reach or revenue of the former.
Warner Bros. TV and Universal Television tied for the lead with nine pickups apiece. WBTV's advantage? "The ability to bring the right idea to the right network for the right reason," boasts president Peter Roth. But other studio chiefs say they came away happy, too. CBS TV Studios president David Stapf says he was able "to supply a majority of the shows for our sister networks, CBS and The CW," and Sony scored an impressive 5-of-9 pickup ratio. Still, unlike last year, when the selling point was "something different" -- Terra Nova (dinosaurs!), Smash (Broadway!), Once Upon a Time (fairy tales!) -- this year's offerings were widely perceived as safer and, as one studio executive notes, somewhat lackluster in their presentation.
-- Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.
KEY SHOWS AND BATTLGROUNDS
Partners: Relocating Two and a Half Men (and its 15 million viewers) to Thursday from its nine-season Monday perch sets a high ratings bar for its CBS replacement, a gay-straight buddy comedy from Will & Grace's David Kohan and Max Mutchnick. If viewers tune out, sophomore hit 2 Broke Girls and the rest of CBS' Monday lineup could suffer.
The Neighbors: ABC's only premiere-week comedy launch gets the post-Modern slot. ABC Entertainment head Paul Lee called the show the "new gold standard" among the network's comedies, but buyers wonder if its aliens-next-door premise is too one-note. If Neighbors becomes this year's Work It, ABC could squander prime real estate.
Touch, Community, Whitney: Network executives spoke at the upfronts about revitalizing Friday night. But when NBC moved underperforming comedies Whitney and Community to the 8 p.m. hour opposite Fox's modestly rated drama Touch, graveyard chatter began anew. Still, the Friday perch could take pressure off these niche shows.
The Good Wife, Revenge: The hole created by Desperate Housewives' departure leaves the field wide open for both femme-facing dramas. CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl says the numbers are on his side. Good Wife, he notes, "did just fine against Desperate Housewives," which was "actually doing better than Revenge." Sunday's fierce cable competition also will factor into the race.
Revolution: NBC is giving its most valuable post-Voice time slot to a serialized, high-concept big bet from producer J.J. Abrams. Will it be a Lost or another Undercovers or Alcatraz? Greenblatt is said to be particularly high on the show, but some buyers note that recent high-cost sci-fi entries (Terra Nova) have failed to deliver.
Happy Endings, New Girl, Go On: It's a comedy showdown! The tonally similar Happy Endings and New Girl will battle Matthew Perry's Go On on NBC, which has vowed to make Tuesday night a marketing priority. The competition is just as fierce at 9:30 p.m., with Don't Trust the B-- in Apt 23, The Mindy Project and Ryan Murphy's The New Normal going head to head.
Rock Center: The Brian Williams newsmagazine is the lowest-rated Big Four show to receive a renewal, and it's moving to one of the schedule's most lucrative slots. "It makes no sense," snipes one rival executive. Says another, "It will be a bloodbath." And while Greenblatt preaches patience, affiliates might not be willing to endure such a low lead-in to their local news. Remember the Jay Leno experiment?
BREAKING DOWN THE SEASON'S MAJOR RISKS: Too much singing? Another split-personality show? THR looks at a few of the networks' biggest gambles.
The talent-competition glut could be near a tipping point. With Britney Spears and Demi Lovato headlining The X Factor, a 15th iteration of Dancing With the Stars and a fall version of The Voice, viewers will have four nights of singing and dancing a week. NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt calls Voice "the phenomenon that is the cornerstone of the future for us." But he adds an important caveat: "We have no illusions that it will take down every singing competition out there, but we're very proud." Many competitors speculate that the network's calculation might be to milk the show while it can. Hence a planned spring version with different coaches.
CBS is known for broad multicamera comedies and by-the-numbers police procedurals, but occasionally it wanders off-brand -- with mixed results. Vegas, a Dennis Quaid-Michael Chiklis period mob drama, is next season's (pricey) departure. Judging from early clips, the show about a Vegas sheriff (Quaid) who takes on a casino boss (Chiklis) feels like a cable drama. And indeed, AMC was developing a GoodFellas reboot from Vegas co-creator Nicholas Pileggi but ultimately passed. CBS successfully broke out of form with The Good Wife, but the last time the network went to Vegas, we got Viva Laughlin.
NBC is determined to make the double-life conceit work despite failing with Kyle Killen's Awake this season. The network has picked up the Jekyll-and-Hyde thriller Do No Harm, starring Steven Pasquale, a regular on Broadway and star of FX's Rescue Me.
A large contingent of dark and twisted dramas (Fox's The Following, The CW's Cult, NBC's Do No Harm and Hannibal) proves that the networks are not afraid of cable-style gloom. NBC has another drama -- J.J. Abrams' Revolution -- that is literally dark as it's set in a world without electricity. Pop-culture historians might conclude that the specter of global terrorism and the economic downturn would benefit these shows, but students of TV history know that viewers tend to reject overly grim television in any era.
And finally, will Spears actually show up to fulfill her X Factor duties? Insiders are already taking bets.