Upfronts analysis Part 1 of 3
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Two orders of business before I start this week’s column:
1. I hate apologizing for missing weekly columns, but I did receive several emails complaining/worrying where I have been over the last several weeks. So, I do feel obligated to alert everyone that over the last three weeks or so, I had been traveling across New England, New York, and New Jersey attending various family functions and researching my Master’s Thesis. I can’t guarantee it won’t happen again because the summer does appear to be very busy for me, but I will try to budget my time better in the future so I have something “in the can” every Monday for my loyal readership. Thanks for understanding. I promise I won’t stray too far from the campsite.
2. I’m still quite excited I got the reaction I did from the “spin-off column” I debuted several weeks ago, “Mr. Coogan’s TV Q & A.” However, I still haven’t had the opportunity to research enough answers to the questions I received to post a full column. I will do my best to post that column no later than Thursday, June 17th. Self-imposed deadlines can often be meaningless but if I receive enough angry feedback from readers wondering where the hell the answer to their question is, that could motivate me to get going instead of procrastinating. I appreciate your patience.
And now the upfronts
For those unaware, the last couple of weeks of May is one of, if not the biggest times of the year for broadcast television. In addition to being a sweeps month and the grand finale of network shows for the summer, it’s also the time where the six major networks announce their new shows and new schedules for the next season. All of this is done as the networks sell advertising rates to sponsors for the next year. According to some reports, billions of dollars worth of advertising is sold based on the presentations from the networks hyping new shows for the upcoming year and returning ones with new timeslots poised for that “breakout season” for one reason or another.
Primarily, those that cover these series of events either pose it as one of the biggest weeks in the industry and should be taken seriously or it’s treated as some combination of a series of network self-deprecating comedy shows, publicity showcases, and crazy parties where the shrimp cocktails and cosmopolitans are provided in infinite supply. Personally, I look at it somewhere in the middle. After all, it isn’t the “end all, be all” of the television industry, but considering some the clips of new shows are being unveiled for the first time to more than just network and ad agency executives, it certainly deserves a great deal of attention from those that follow the attention.
While this may be true, I also don’t take the upfronts too seriously because a lot can still change over a few months time. Shows get pushed back several times until the networks realize that it will probably never draw an audience and then either get burned off on Saturday nights, during the summer, or both. Even worse, some shows get canceled before they even hit the air. Consider these blurbs I wrote in the upfronts analysis I wrote for a href=”http://www.moodspins.com”> Matthew Michaels’s Moodspins.com last year:
Rachel Leigh Cook – OK, she isn’t a “box office titan,” but she made her name in some big budget films like She’s All That (with the dreamy Freddie Prinze, Jr.) and blast from the past, Josie and the Pussycats. Now, she is making the move to television in the WB series, “Fearless” an “Alias”-esque type program, just without the freaky parents.
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Fox is introducing the potentially very peculiar “The Ortegas” to the world on Sundays in the Fall. Apparently, it’s part “The Larry Sanders Show” and part dreadful stereotype of the average Mexican family. Led by Cheech Marin, the Ortegas will shower real celebrities with Mexican love and then conduct real interviews with them, the same way Garry Shandling did when he played the main character in “The Larry Sanders Show.” It will be interesting to see if this works out.
Both of these shows were hyped during their network’s upfronts presentation, but amazingly, neither one ever actually made it on the air for various reasons. Other shows from last year’s upfronts that were presented and hyped up only to fail miserably include:
** NBC’s “The Lyon’s Den” a legal drama led by Rob Lowe
** CBS’ “The Brotherhood of Poland, NH” a drama created by David E. Kelley and starring Randy Quaid and Mare Winningham
** UPN’s “The Mullets” a comedy starring a (still) buxom Loni Anderson and a bunch of guys sporting “business in the front, party in the back” hairstyles
So, once upon a time, these shows were the future of the network where they were set to air on and less than five episodes later, each show went out with a whimper and with very little fanfare. In the mean time, in each case, the network simply rearranged the schedule and either aired additional repeats of a popular show, debuted something new, or creatively found a way to fill the time and attract viewers. Why is it that each time a new show debuted, the networks didn’t stop everything to host wildly expensive parties at plush locations in New York or Los Angeles featuring presentations that were very self-mocking in nature?
It shows me that these events really aren’t as significant as they were in previous years. Since shows are canceled at the drop of a hat and new ones are brought in almost as quickly, including during the formerly dead summer months, many shows don’t get the grand treatment that those already picked up for September and January have. Instead, the tapes are sent to television critics, where they, generally speaking, ceremoniously torch them (though to be fair, they often do so with good reason) and dig a ditch for these new shows early that’s often hard to get themselves out of. There was a time when the networks would be debuting 12-15 shows, just for the fall. This time around, NBC will debut seven and CBS will only unveil six. Meanwhile, Fox is set to present six new shows to the audience in June alone. The upfronts don’t appear to be as loaded as they used to.
While the upfronts probably don’t mean what they used to, they still carry some significance for two reasons. First and foremost, they are used to determine advertising rates for the new season and executives can start to decide if the new shows unveiled will actually succeed in terms of ratings numbers and corresponding money from advertising if the show does perform well. In addition, while the networks often pick up series that often morph into unwatchable clunkers, they also don’t pick up every pilot that was recorded either. So, the upfronts provide a chance for people “in the know” to see exactly which shows were being picked up for the upcoming season. After all, many high profile stars trying to get back into television (or into it for the first time) that one may think would be bankable stars didn’t get their pilots picked up by the network they signed with. We’ll get to that later though
The bottom line is behind all the “glitz and glamour” of the upfront season, it still holds a great deal of significance in the television industry. However, with all the shows being canceled and the new ones being debuted so quickly, it feels like the networks are hyping the NCAA basketball tournament field of 65 teams with only 32 teams actually taking part in the fall and the rest being added later as they see fit. Sure, that might make good reality television, but it isn’t the best representation of the product the networks are providing either.
Either way, whether you believe the upfronts are significant or not, they do need to be looked at. After all, CBS’ surprise comedy success “Two and a Half Men” and Fox’s critically celebrated “Arrested Development” were shown to the public for the first time last year at the upfronts. They can’t be all bad, right?
NBC Seven new fall shows, five mid-season additions
What looks like the best? Well, I suppose how one defines “the best” as it relates to NBC. If “best” is defined as “most number of viewers” the fourth in the “Law & Order” franchise, “Trial by Jury” (being launched in mid-season) will likely draw a strong, normally reliable audience, especially considering franchise staple Jerry Orbach will reprise his Lennie Briscoe character and make the audience feel comfortable with the new edition. The show will focus more on the legalese of a criminal trial instead of focusing equally or more on the capture of the perpetrator in question.
“Joey” (Thursdays at 8), the “Friends” spin off starring Matt LeBlanc, also will draw large audiences seeking to relive “Friends'” “good ole’ days” as LeBlanc’s character, Joey Tribbiani, heads west to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career. “Friends” buffs will remember that Joey was pretty upset when he found out Monica and Chandler were moving to the suburbs to raise their family and that Rachel was possibly moving to Paris to further her career, but apparently, it was OK for him to leave New York City himself. Thankfully, it appears the writers allowed him to get over whatever angst he had leaving the big city as the buzz is he was perfectly fine when he arrived in sunny California. Anyway, even if the show isn’t the revolutionary comedy that “Friends” was, the show will probably draw well enough numbers to make it a worthwhile investment for the network. Hell, Joey is going to be in the same timeslot “Friends” has occupied for ten years. That alone gives it a pretty distinct advantage going in.
What about the shows that aren’t spin offs? Based on the synopses I have had my hands on, I’d say Mark Burnett’s boxing reality show “The Contender” (Tuesdays at 8:00 in conjunction with the “Average Joe” franchise) narrowly beats out the Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood led airport drama “LAX” as “most likely to succeed.” Whether we like it or not, Mark Burnett knows what he’s doing when it comes putting together these reality shows. Even people who don’t necessarily like boxing will tune in to this type of show because they are so personality driven and it’s very easy to “support” or “get behind” particular people involved in the competition. It also doesn’t hurt that an established movie star (Sylvester Stallone) and a popular former professional boxer (“Sugar” Ray Leonard) will be involved in the project and likely receive enough camera time to make the audience happy.
Meanwhile, “LAX” (Mondays at 10:00) appears to be a great compliment to its Monday night drama companion “Las Vegas” as they are cut from the same storytelling mold. In “LAX”, the stories will be told from the perspectives of assorted airport supervisors and employees (led by Underwood and Locklear) and dive into their personal lives and also their dealings with people who come in and out of the airport. This is similar to the way the characters in “Las Vegas” deal with casino patrons and “The Love Boat” dealt with people aboard the cruise ship enjoying their vacations. The formula has proved successful already and the eye candy/established stars will draw enough people in. Even if the writing isn’t up to par, the show could still do well for itself, though it’s got a tough task going against “CSI: Miami” on Monday nights.
What’s the biggest risk? That one’s easy. The buzz is “Father of the Pride (Tuesdays at 9:00), NBC’s attempted foray into the world of animated sitcoms largely dominated by Fox is extraordinarily expensive to produce, especially considering the high profile cast providing the voices (including John Goodman, “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Cheryl Hines, Ocean’s Eleven‘s Carl Reiner and Orlando Jones). The show, which follows the offstage lives of Siegfried and Roy’s performing white lions, could also upset some people taking into account the horrific events that unfolded and left Roy Horn clinging to his life. Finally, the show has to be about as funny as “The Simpsons” considering the absurdity of the cartoon. Considering the same studio that put out Shrek is spearheading this project, that may not be as big of an issue, but it should be taken into account.
What will be the biggest flop? I’d say it’s a dead heat between two mid-season sitcoms that will be launched. “Crazy for You” is a romantic comedy where “an optimistic occupational therapist and a pessimistic heir to a blood lineage of geniuses who have all gone insane” meet and fall in love. Word is the chemistry between the main characters (played by Josh Cooke and Jennifer Finnegan) is actually pretty enticing, but over the last several years, these types of comedies just haven’t fared well unless some sort of soap opera/dramatic elements are involved as well.
Another NBC mid-season comedy destined to fail is “The Men’s Room”, a show where a middle-aged man married for 20 years and a young adult who acts about 30 years too old asks a regular guy to move in and “teach them” how to be “guys.” According to Zap2It, NBC said that a “larger than life” character will establish himself in the series (think “Seinfeld’s” Kramer or “Will & Grace’s” Jack). Then again, that’s NBC talking. It just seems to me that the synopsis screams the lower calorie sitcom version of “The Man Show” and won’t resonate with viewers.
What about the rest? – Besides the shows already mentioned, NBC appears to have a decent crop of shows utilizing some of the same dramatic formulas that have worked for years.
** “Hawaii” (Wednesdays at 8:00) Led by Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese in The Terminator) and Sharif Atkins (“ER”), this cop drama features the wily veteran of Hawaii’s culture (Biehn) with the new guy from Chicago (Atkins) not exactly knowing what he’s gotten into. According to Zap2It, the show features a significant amount of gunfire and high speed car chases for the 8:00 PM timeslot and their people aren’t sure if it’s going to fly.
** “Medical Investigation” (Fridays at 10:00) This drama starring Neil McDonough (“Boomtown”) and Kelli Williams (“The Practice”) is a combination medical/cop drama, but it’s different in that the cast plays high ranking employees with the National Institute of Health as they travel the country attempting to diagnose and stop the spread of mysterious diseases and viruses.
**“Revelations” (Wednesdays at 9:00 in conjunction with “The West Wing”) This limited run drama features Bill Pullman and Natasha McElhone (Solaris). Pullman plays a scientist forced to confront his beliefs when he begins seeing signs of the apocalypse. McElhone plays a nun who believes in what she’s seeing and works with Pullman in trying to stop the end of the world (She plays “Mulder to his Scully” according to Zap2It). The word is the show could be remarkably interesting in a dark, “X-Files” kind of way or remarkably cheesy making critics everywhere laugh their asses off.
**“Medium” (mid-season) In this mid-season drama, Patricia Arquette moves to television as she plays a housewife who can see and hear the dead and uses the information to help solve crimes all over the country. This show reminds me a lot of some of the old clips on “Unsolved Mysteries” where the police would actually bring psychics in to help solve assorted cases. Of course, this will be more dramatic and feature a prettier housewife But everything else seems pretty similar
**“The Office” (mid-season) This mid-season comedy will mirror the successful, Golden Globe winning British version of the workplace sitcom. Steve Carell (“The Daily Show”) will play the role formerly held by Ricky Gervais (who will act as a producer on the American version of the show). Any time a successful British show is copied and “Americanized,” critics get worried (for good reason if you ever saw “Coupling”). However, with Gervais present as a producer, there is reason to believe that the heart of the show will be maintained and that it won’t turn into a cheesy American sitcom. Here’s to hoping an updated version of this show could be great for American television.
The WB Six new fall shows, five mid-season additions
What looks like the best? -The WB’s forte seems to be producing shows that attract small, but insanely faithful audiences. They’ve done this with “7th Heaven,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Buffy,” “Angel” and could be on the way to doing that again with two young faced centered dramas in “Jack and Bobby” and “The Mountain”. The former is very loosely based on John and Robert Kennedy’s young lives as older brother John (Jack) and younger brother Robert (Bobby) are smart boys going to a private school and one is destined to become President later in life. That’s really where the similarities end though as the boys are raised by an over protective single mother and aren’t part of a rich family with a famous name. Apparently, several important details about the boys’ lives are revealed by the end of the pilot, including who is going to be President. According to Zap2It, the skipping of time actually makes sense in context of the show, though it could be a very hard sell as it’s not a conventional storytelling technique.
The other new drama geared towards the younger audience is “The Mountain”, essentially being labeled as “The O.C.” set on a mountain with skiing and snowboarding instead of surfing and swimming. While the plot lines aren’t the same (it’s based on the rich owner of a ski resort leaving the business to the most irresponsible of his grandchildren when he dies), it will contain many of the same soap opera-esque storytelling elements and try to appeal to both the young and older crowd with those storylines. Considering McG is producing this show, the elements could be more similar than any of us could like. Zap2It‘s analysis of the pilot says that the show is all flash and no substance though, so that’s why it lags behind “Jack and Bobby” as the best new offering for the WB. But, with a little fine tuning, the show could prove itself worthy. Then again, with the timeslot of death (Thursday at 8:00), it may not matter.
What’s the biggest risk? – It’s a fairly tough call, but I’d say Jeff Foxworthy’s stand-up/improv skit show, “Blue Collar TV” has the best chance of being a highly marketed failure while also having the potential to pay off big as well. Foxworthy has always been the cute southern guy who always says ” you might be a redneck” but his act always seemed better for the stand-up tour and not anchoring his own television show. Then again, if the public likes him and the show even half as much as the network seems to, he’ll be successful. However, he and Drew Carey share the same problem: unhappy “Angel” fans are probably going to boycott the network and anything put in the vampire’s old timeslot. It’s tough
What will be the biggest flop? – This is an easy one. “Commando Nanny”is set to debut on the popular Friday night lineup between “What I Like About You” and “Reba” at 8:30 and probably will just cause people to make dinner, watch the middle innings of a baseball game or take a prolonged bathroom break rather than entertain a large crowd. Amazingly, the same man who knew to take a chance with “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” Mark Burnett, is producing this disaster waiting to happen. Essentially, the plot is a young, attractive commander from the British Special Forces (Philip Winchester) moving to Los Angeles and taking a job as a nanny for three spoiled, rich kids. There is a little bit of “Mr. Belvedere” and “Charles in Charge” in this creation which could be a good thing based on the longevity of those shows. However, I get the sinking feeling the kids will be so spoiled they will be annoying; the main character will cling to his “military experience” too much and the parents (including accomplished sitcom actor Gerald McRainey) won’t be involved nearly as much as they should be.
What about the rest? – In addition to its usual crop of young people centered dramas mixed in with a few comedies, the WB is jumping on the reality bandwagon like most of the other networks that have taken quite a shine to. Do any of them look worthy of our time?
**“Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show” (Wednesdays at 9:30 The premise of this show is that Drew Carey will lead a troupe of the improv comedy stars he’s worked with previously on “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” through a series of improvisational skits in front of an audience and a green screen. From there, assorted forms of animation will be added to contribute something extra and different to the scenes and hopefully make them funny in the process. This goes against a lot of what improv comedy is all about since it involves a lot more imagination, but it’s a risk that could pay off.
**“Studio 7” (Thursdays at 9:00) This reality show is a hybrid of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “The Real World” as it takes seven young people and tests their knowledge of assorted pop culture and current events and other crazy trivia. The twist is that while this is going on, the seven will live in a deluxe New York City apartment. With a little fleshing out, the concept could turn into a real winner that’s part reality show, part game show. However, Thursday nights at 9:00? Opposite “The Apprentice” and “CSI?” It’s a wonder these lower profile networks haven’t just given up and aired a movie of the week against these high profile shows.
**“Big Man on Campus” (midseason) This college Greek system set show will feature a sorority choosing the most magical fraternity brother on campus as a king and him turning around and choosing his queen. The bickering and backstabbing alone will make this mess worth tuning in for.
**“Global Frequency” (midseason) Mark Burnett strikes again. Showing he can do more than just put together a good reality show, Burnett brings to life this drama based on the comic book series about The Global Frequency, a secret, illegal intelligence organization with agents all over the world ready to complete a mission as soon as the phone call is placed. Unlike “Commando Nanny”, this premise appears to have some promise as it reminds me a little like “Alias” except without the government involvement. After all, this secret organization takes part in a boat load of crazy assignments for various reasons.
** “Rocky Point” (midseason) The WB becomes the third network to announce a new series that’s set in Hawaii as this show follows a 19-year-old girl’s retreat from Connecticut to the Hawaiian island where she was born only to be tracked down by her estranged father. The female lead hasn’t been cast yet but “Once and Again’s” Billy Campbell is involved and that will make women feel dreamy.
**“Shacking Up” (midseason) Fran Drescher returns to network television as she plays the mother of a 25-year-old medical school drop out moving back home and the girlfriend of the 24-year-old dude already living there. The show will likely feature a lot of wacky situations and age jokes, but it really comes down CBS’ “The Nanny.” If you like to look at her, you’ll have to listen to her too.
**“Wannabes” (midseason) In what could be the nastiest reality show in the history of the genre, a group of young people looking to be stars live in the same house and audition for all the same roles. Something tells me, these people with unnecessarily inflated egos won’t be congratulating one of their roommates if he/she achieves any level of success. Chances are, the winners will be likely to get out of the house alive.
***Stay Tuned for Part II of the “Groove Tube” upfronts analysis which will feature the new shows that will appear on ABC and CBS. The column will be posted on Wednesday, June 9th.***