overthinking the idiot box

May 16th, 2005

For the television afficionado, the Upfronts are more than just a sneak peek at the fall schedules for every network — they offer the observant a chance to better understand what the network thinks America wants to watch. What exactly that is? Leave it to SMRT-TV to tell you.

special feature
The Fall 2005 Upfronts: SMRT-TV Staff Discusses

The WB
Fox and UPN

Prior to the announcement...

Joel: To begin, I thought we could start by assessing the current status of the network, what they need to do with their fall lineup and any predictions about which pilots will be picked up (and which on-the-bubble series might get canned).

Nathan: NBC hasn't had the most pleasant of years, as evidenced by the swarms of people flocking to once-puny ABC. It's such a shame, too! NBC has the raw material for compelling and fun television, like Joey, which has a great cast, but so-so writing.

Actually, I couldn't really find anything else on the "Already Renewed" list with that sort of potential; ER should have died a painful death long ago, and West Wing is a mockery of itself. Even Scrubs is slowly faltering.

So here's the $10,000 question — how does NBC get back on top?

Joel: For the first time since 1984, the Peacock has a serious dearth of comedies. Even with all the death knells being sounded for the sitcom last year, I'm not sure anybody could've foreseen how gaping a black-hole Friends (and to a lesser extent Frasier) would leave at NBC. Cassandras had cried the same thing when Cheers and Seinfeld went off the air, but every time one legend faded, there was Another (usually several others) to keep the TV "Must See."

And let's not forget that Friends was launched in the 8:30 Thursday slot while Frasier premiered post-Seinfeld at 9:30. This season, what little power Joey and Will & Grace had was wasted on keeping each other afloat.
NBC may have staved off total annihilation by the CBS Thursday hordes with The Apprentice, but they didn't do themselves any long term favors. By handing over their prime real estate to Donald Trump for a season and a half, they forfeited their two kingmaker slots: 8:30 and 9:30. Sure there were jokes about Caroline in the City, Suddenly Susan, Veronica's Closet and countless other mediocre efforts, but Caroline and Susan each lasted four seasons while Veronica lasted three. And let's not forget that Friends was launched in the 8:30 Thursday slot while Frasier premiered post-Seinfeld at 9:30. This season, what little power Joey and Will & Grace had was wasted on keeping each other afloat.

If they were smart, they'd move The Apprentice off Thursdays to shore up another night, while putting two solid hours of comedy up against dramas and reality on the other networks. I'm not sure whether the Trump Apprentice and the Martha Stewart Apprentice are alternating seasons or not, but if they're not, then the Stewart show should be used as an 8 PM launching pad for some of their new comedies. CBS and FOX have both used their top reality franchises to launch scripted hits, why hasn't NBC?

Two dramas have been all but picked up already (E-Ring and Fathom — yawns on both counts). Buzz also seems to favor Book of Daniel (Jesus is all the rage these days, especially following their one bright spot this season — Revelations). That's half of the dramas they developed.

On the all important comedy front, only one has started staffing: My Name is Earl. So what of the other 19 contenders? Without having seen any, I think Early Bird sounds like a strong premise and I'm rooting for Tina Fey's show, but since that pilot isn't scheduled to be shot until summer, I'm guessing that'd be a midseason pick-up at the earliest.

One final trend to be on the lookout for tomorrow: Testosterone. Rumors were floating around that NBC wanted to steal 24 from FOX. While I don't see that happening, combined with their NFL recovery (always something of a loss-leader) and the manly-sounding E-Ring, Fathom and My Name is Earl, this news suggests they're making a play for those 18-49 year-old males that disappeared last year. It'd be a bold move with more and more nets chasing the fairer demographic. We'll see how it unfolds.

The NBC Schedule is Released

Nathan: It's here! It's been announced! The fall season has been released! Are we happy?

We are... huh. Not happy, really, more like... Well, actually, kinda bored.

The Martha Stewart Apprentice is not, in fact, alternating seasons with Trump, and will start NBC's formerly-classy Wednesday night, followed by Mr. Bruckheimer's latest folly, E-Ring (which, I agree, looks like the perfect recipe for a snoozer). West Wing gets bumped to Sunday in anticipation, I'm sure, of a fat, juicy cancellation next year. Shame. From Aaron Sorkin to Jerry Bruckheimer — that's a stark statement of shifted values, don't you think?

My Name is Earl: NBC's only new comedy
Looks like The Office survived the chopping block, which is okay; the show is, after all, pretty good (though I'd just like to join the shrieking chorus of voices saying The Office is no The Office, ya know?). Any excuse to put Steve Carrell on television is fine with me. It shares Tuesday with My Name is Earl, a show about, well, winning the lottery, I guess. It seems kind of vague — like you, I was rooting for Early Bird.

Committed got the axe, and thank goodness for that — I've never seen a show so aggressively determined to be quirky. It was exhausting watching it, at every single moment, seek out and take the road less traveled with an intensity to rival a Marine's. 'Sides, the Winslow boy couldn't act.

Thick and Thin is the other new comedy, one I'm quite afraid of, actually, since by its description it seems tailor-made to make fun of fat people. I don't know whether to be disgusted or secretly overjoyed.

The word of the day seems to be "upscale," as the press release uses it to refer to The Office, Law & Order, and The Apprentice, three shows, I believe, with the least in common as possible. NBC's strategy seems to be to alternate nights of comedy and drama, with a bit of reality thrown in there for spice. It does not, though, have a single night of pure comedy. Pity.

Joel: My reaction is boredom bordering on anger. I'm not sure if I'm angry because I was completely wrong or because NBC is completely wrong.

ONE new comedy? And it's bumping Scrubs to midseason, so it's really a wash with only four half hour comedies on the fall lineup. And unless Inconceivable is lighter than they're letting on (and with a punny title like that, it had better be), they don't even have one dramedy. Plus, with Will & Grace supposedly on its last lap, The Office unlikely to expand its audience and Joey replacing According to Jim as the go-to reference for sit-com haters, the future of NBC beyond this season looks so unfunny it's not even funny. They're digging themselves deeper and deeper.

Good call on the "formerly-classy". It's a shame West Wing is being exiled to Sundays next season. With so many changes in store — a new president, potentially even a new cast — its remaining viewers could use some constancy. This is going to be a sticking point especially if NFL games start preempting or delaying Wing on the East Coast. That's what killed Futurama and I can only imagine what it'll do to a serialized drama with an on-going story (the election) that's one of the more TiVo'd series on television. From Sorkin to Bruckheimer indeed.

I was hoping The Office would get a stay of execution. It's been finding its voice independent of the original and should continue to do so in its second season. I think the American version's strongest deviation has been its ability to focus on issues of race which couldn't be fully explored in the British version.

I had the same thoughts as you when I first read Thick and Thin's description. I'm surprised they didn't give it My Name Is Earl's slot, post-The Biggest Loser. Could've made a hell of a theme night.
I had the same thoughts as you when I first read Thick and Thin's description. I'm surprised they didn't give it My Name Is Earl's slot, post-The Biggest Loser. Could've made a hell of a theme night.

At first I thought using the word "upscale" to describe The Apprentice was like using the word "upscale" to describe Trump's gold-plated apartment. Then I realized NBC was talking about the quality of its viewers, not its shows. This is the reason NBC has managed to do so well with upfront ad-sales the last few years despite faltering in overall ratings: Their audiences tend to have more money than the other networks'. Without any fresh concepts to sell (like a Lost or a Desperate Housewives), NBC has made sure to hammer home to Madison Avenue that subtle buzzword of the day.

All in all, this schedule is a disappointment on multiple levels. There's nothing here that suggests a return to glory, either ratings- or quality-wise. At best it's a lateral move — something to stop the bleeding. When ABC hit bottom, they took some pretty big risks. They may not have all panned out, but ultimately, look what happened.

On a personal level, I'm let down. I remember the days when they had 4/5 of the Outstanding Comedy Series nominees. NBC was THE place for smart comedy. Now they're looking to edge CBS out as the home for generic dramas. In addition, they're treating my two favorite NBC series (West Wing and Scrubs) pretty shoddily. That stings.

So, what (if anything) do we think this schedule says about the network, and the overall television landscape, in a thematic sense? Besides the paradigm shift from Sorkin to Bruckheimer.

Nathan: I think you hit the nail on the head — instead of moving forward, NBC shunted sideways instead.

ABC has become the model for what a network should become. Like you said, when it hit bottom (And I think Drew Carey's Green Screen Show is about as low as one can go), it turned around, pared the fat, and emerged smarter and leaner than before. NBC, by contrast, seems simply bloated.

Five years ago, I never changed the channel after 8 p.m. NBC simply had no competition, nothing serious at any rate. The shows and the schedule were razor sharp. Now, NBC has thrown open the floodgates and become, horror of horrors, home to the worst kind of cheap and easy sentiment.

I mean, come on — Inconceivable? It's a show about babies. GE's trying to squeeze tear ducts like a farmer milking his cows. The Biggest Loser is nothing but tears, and I'm sure Thick and Thin will have more than a few episodes where the fat people bemoan their fatness.

So the Sorkin-Bruckheimer shift becomes the perfect encapsulation of this new schedule; Aaron Sorkin, for all his faults, is not a sentimental writer. His emotions are mature and handled maturely. Bruckheimer, on the rare occasion he presents emotions, are the easiest kind of Hallmark tripe.

This is why I don't oppose a spinoff of The Apprentice. Trump's show is the most gleefully cynical thing on television. It's just business? You bet your sweet bippy it is, business like it was run in the 1930s, where everyone is corrupt, everyone's a backstabber, and everyone would chew a baby's face to get to the top. Add Martha to the mix and suddenly it becomes eighteen episodes of The Importance of Being Earnest, where seething hatred is hid under the most pleasant and elaborate of manners.

The two Apprentices, the eventual return of Scrubs (sob!), West Wing and, ahem, Joey, are the only things I like about this schedule. The rest of the schedule, indeed the network itself, is simply bloated pap. I expect leaner, meaner ABC to firmly trounce NBC once again.

Joel: Perhaps NBC hasn't hit bottom yet in the same way that ABC had to before it was able to completely reverse course. But by emulating their Who Wants To Be A Millionaire scheduling fiasco with Law & Order and now The Apprentice franchises, they're well on their way. It's only a matter of time until they're willing to take a chance on something a little more daring. We probably would've been mocking them if they'd picked up NoTORIous but at least that would've shown some guts on their part. Until next May...

Nathan: Once the shining jewel of the Big Three, NBC has undergone a sort-of reverse evolution, emerging, at the end, as a lump of dusty coal. Five years ago, West Wing was still new, Friends still fresh, Will & Grace still biting, and Scrubs only a season away. Now, the most promising new show stars Jason Lee, and I'm anticipating, of all people, the arrival of Martha Stewart. How did this happen?

At the risk of mixing my metaphors, I gotta say NBC shows all the stamina and drive of a punch-drunk sumo wrestler, body swaying and head spinning, its massive girth moments away from giving out completely. One wonders why it bothers getting in the ring at all.

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