TV Upfronts: 5 Takeaways From ABC's Justified Pat on the Back

Smallz + Raskind

Ben Sherwood makes his debut as Disney-ABC Television Group topper, Paul Lee shows off new and returning fare, and everybody praises Shonda Rhimes.

Welcome to ABC's victory lap.

Mere minutes into the network's annual upfront presentation at Lincoln Center on Tuesday, new Disney-ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood — or "Big Ben," as How to Get Away With Murder star Viola Davis dubbed him — trotted onstage to begin the chest-thumping about ABC's primetime turnaround. A point he would make abundantly clear in the time allotted: ABC is the only network of the Big Four to register an uptick this season, up 5 percent year-over-year. It is also the No. 1 network in entertainment (read: non-sports) programming, up from No. 3 last season.

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"ABC has got the momentum and we like where we're going," Sherwood told the audience of media buyers, along with his boss, CEO Bob Iger. ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee graced the stage minutes later to lay it on even thicker, praising the network's "smart," "emotional," "passionate" brand, arguing at one point that it was stronger than that of AMC or HBO.

Absent from all of the onstage plugging was much mention of the network's misfires, and there were a few of those, too. Remember the questionably titled Selfie? How about the Manhattan Love Story that wasn't? Or what about Forever, which didn't last, well... You get it. That was right until late-night host and annual upfront highlight Jimmy Kimmel came out to, as Lee joked, "undo everything I've just done."

In addition to a string of Shonda Rhimes quips — low-hanging fruit given the four hours of real estate the uber-producer now occupies — here were the five takeaways.

1. TGI... Shonda Rhimes
ABC execs know where their bread is buttered, with Sherwood only half-joking, "I should give credit to the person paying for this shindig. Shonda Rhimes, where are you?" Later, Lee quipped that his contract requires that he order a new Rhimes series each season, which explains this year's addition: The Catch. The Rhimes drama will join the producer's highly rated (and tweeted- and Facebooked-about) Thursday night lineup midseason. The network went so far as to compile a clip reel of non-ABC shows, including The Mindy Project, Cougar Town and Hot in Cleveland, that have plugged Rhimes' fare.

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2. Ratings Lifts Are Great — But Remember Multiplatform
Multiplatform dominance has been a popular narrative at the upfronts. And ABC ad sales president Geri Wang was no exception, touting 640 million digital starts for ABC content and on-demand viewing that is equivalent to the third-ranked cable network. Geri also promised the media buyers gathered at Avery Fisher Hall addressable advertising that will allow advertisers to match their ads to consumers' tastes.

3. David Muir Might Want to Stay Behind the Anchor Desk
ABC opened its upfront presentation with a video parody featuring Viola Davis — in character as How to Get Away With Murder's Annalise Keating — schooling the network's stars in “how to get a win at ABC.” There was Katie Lowes (Scandal's Quinn Perkins), Shark Tank's Mark Cuban, Lana Parrilla (Once Upon a Time's Evil Queen) and Fresh Off the Boat's Constance Wu. And playing himself in the video was ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir. At one point, Muir stood up and asked: “When does all the murder happen?” Since Muir took over the evening news broadcast last September from Diane Sawyer, he has become one of the faces of the ABC News brand, and he's notched a series of impressive ratings wins against NBC Nightly News. But including Muir with the network's entertainment stars seemed a little off-key at a time when the evening news broadcasts are under the microscope thanks to the continuing Brian Williams scandal.

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4. Diversity Is Still the Priority

No one in their right mind could say that broadcast TV is anywhere near as diverse as its audience, but it has made great strides in the last few years. And while Empire might have the heat, ABC easily boasts the most minority-fronted shows of the Big Four — a fact briefly acknowledged by a non-boastful Lee during his talk. Evidence of ABC's continued push wasn't just evident in its new series — Dr. Ken, Uncle Buck and Quantico among them — but also in the talent onstage. Davis and Black-ish star Anthony Anderson both figured prominently into the presentation, and ABC saved Kerry Washington for its final game all-on. (That is, if you don't count Montell Jordan, singing a hokey, ABC-ified rendition of "This Is How We Do It.")

5. Nashville and Nashville Have a Mutual Affection

In his brief comments about Nashville, Lee noted that the country-music drama is now credited with contributing 43 percent to the Tennessee capital's annual tourist count. He joked that he hasn't seen any backend. Well, that's not exactly true, Paul. Tennessee earmarked $8 million for Nashville's fourth season two weeks before it scored a renewal, one (very big) reason why the modestly rated series is coming back at all.

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