overthinking the idiot box

May 17th, 2005

For the television aficionado, 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 Fox announcement...

Alison: The big question was the status of Arrested Development — the critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged show. I heard that all that business about 24 going to NBC was Imagine Entertainment (who produces 24 and Arrested Development) saying "Hey Fox, if you don't renew Arrested Development then we're walking with 24." And now, before the upfronts are even released, there's a press release that 24 and Arrested Development have been renewed on Fox. Interesting.

A third season AND unlimited juice? This party's going to be off the hook!

Adam: When Liz asked me to cover the Fox release, I warned her that if they axed Arrested Development, my commentary would contain many, many uses of the word "motherfucker." I can only assume that the early renewal was their attempt to protect the virtual ears of America's youth.

Alison: But I'm not expecting a whole lot of change to Fox's current slate. With American Idol not premiering until January, they always have those open days for their new programming. I think what Fox needs to do is capitalize on their hit shows and create programming blocks that will deter viewers from changing the channel. They have a great animation-sitcom block on Sunday night and I think they should program their nights more like that. The people watching 24 are not the same people watch Nanny 911 for instance, but they're airing together on Mondays. We'll have to see what they have planned to follow The O.C. — it's a great lead in for something, but they haven't found that something yet. And I'll be interested to see what they pair up with House, now that it's a hit.

Adam: With Arrested Development saved, I'm not expecting huge changes for Fox either. They've hit their stride, both in terms of achieving solid ratings and in finding an identity (even if it's on that's half-filled with reality crap that I can't stand, American Idol most definitely included). I'd expect Arrested to possibly end up on a new night (given the Sunday focus on animation), and maybe a new animated show to end up on Sundays (I'm assuming they'll keep King of the Hill in the early slot to be a sacrificial lamb for football). But overall, I'm not expecting huge changes.

The Fox Announcement

Alison: What a surprise the Fox schedule is! They seem to be treating Sept-Dec and Jan-May as almost two different seasons. For instance, House is going to stay where it is for the first half of the year and then move for the second half? How odd.

Adam: As I recall, they pulled something similar last season, with three different schedules. It's not like any network's fall schedule doesn't undergo a few changes, so I'm not sure why they'd try to plan so far ahead with shows like House.

There are a couple of new shows that seem more like miniseries, because I don't see how they could have a second season. For instance, Prison Break — once they break out, the show is over.
Alison: While I think moving House mid-season is a very bizarre move, I do think the pairing of 24 and House is a good one. But it will be interesting to see if House has legs without the American Idol lead-in.

There are a couple of new shows that seem more like miniseries, because I don't see how they could have a second season. For instance, Prison Break — once they break out, the show is over. And how do they do a Season 2 of Reunion? Both these shows sound interesting, but I wonder about their longevity if they prove to be hits.

Adam: I'm more concerned about Prison Break than Reunion. The latter has all sorts of other potential, since they're only focusing on one major event per year. They could easily pull off a season two with a different mystery that takes us into a different set of flashbacks, etc. That's assuming the show's good enough to live up to the premise, and manages to break through against CSI and The Apprentice (both shows that have long been ready to be overtaken). Prison Break does seem like it might run into problems in the long run. Unless they rename it in season two to something like "Manhunt."

Alison: And did you notice a decided lack of reality on Fox's schedule? How unusual for them. But I think it's a good move, even if they replace reality with unoriginal-sounding new dramas: a law show, a CSI show, a Medium show. At least Fox is bringing our Buffy boys, David Borenaz and Nicholas Brendan, back to TV. That sounds alright.

Adam: There's nothing that makes me happier than that lack of reality programming. Fox has generally scraped the bottom of the barrel on that front, and the less I see of it, the happier I am. Borenaz's show looks as lame as any attempt to cash in on another show's success would be, but I'm really excited about Brendan's return to TV, as I loved Tony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, the book upon which the show is based.

Alison: I know very little about Kitchen Confidential but the pilot sounds good: Will from Alias has to staff up in a couple of hours for a big restaurant night with his ex-girlfriend critic. But from that point on, who knows?

Adam: As far as the shows they moved around, I'm glad to see that Malcolm in the Middle's getting a real time slot again — the first half of this past season was pre-empted on the East Coast thanks to football games running long. I just hope that the new slot inspires some creativity — it used to be the smartest comedy on the air. And I'm happy as can be about Arrested Development, but I'd like to know what's going on with it in Fox's "Second Season."

Alison: I'd like to see a Malcolm renaissance. And I think a half season of Arrested Development is better than no Arrested Development at all. With all these half seasons I wonder if they'll all be 'non-stop' like 24? I guess well have to wait and see. But as long as Arrested Development is back, we seem to be two happy staffers.

Prior to the UPN announcement...

Adam:The end of Enterprise definitely signals a shift for the network. Aside from their two Trek shows, they've had their share of genre shows over the years (Twilight Zone, Special Unit 2, the late pick-ups of Roswell and Buffy, etc), but it looks like they're moving on, just as genre shows are starting to gain a foothold with the other networks again. That's something that I find a but puzzling, as their identity, as things stand right now, is a bunch of homogenous crap, plus Veronica Mars and Kevin Hill. I'm also curious if they'll attempt to expand their programming to either three hours a night or to weekends. At ten hours a week, it's hard to take them as seriously as the other five networks.

The new face of UPN — Way prettier than wrestlers.

Alison: The early word on UPN is that they are overhauling their station. With the end of Enterprise they've decided to also drop WWE Wrestling, which is their highest rated show. Why drop your highest rated show? Evidently they are looking to become a brand, like what the WB did when they started making shows almost exclusively for teenagers. And I believe UPN will now try to orient all of their programming toward the America's Next Top Model demographic: young adult females. So it should be very interesting to see what their slate looks like because they have to fill two empty hours of wrestling and one of Enterprise at the very least. I think they are looking for an older audience than what the WB targets but with them programming around shows like America's Next Top Model and Veronica Mars, it's beginning to look a bit like The WB.

Adam: The one spot I'm really going to pay attention to is Tuesdays at 9. The one good thing about NBC's idiotic decision to shelve Scrubs is that that timeslot is down to two great shows. But I'd still like to be able to catch both Veronica Mars and House, and I'm wondering if either (or both) network will blink. Personally, I'm betting that UPN is more likely, as House has already found a solid audience (one that's likely to grow without Scrubs next season).

The UPN Announcement

Adam:Wow. Did I get bitten by the "be careful what you wish for" bug, or what? Yeah, Veronica Mars, one of the two truly superb new series to debut last fall, has been moved from its slot opposite House. But now it's up against ABC's Lost, the other great series, which also happens to be a wee bit of a ratings juggernaut. I'm really hoping they shuffle their schedule again before the fall. If not, looks like this'll be the year when Adam finally learns to use Bittorrent.

Alison: I also watch both Lost and Veronica Mars and don't know how to take the conflict.

Adam: Looking at the new shows, Everybody Hates Chris, on paper, looks like it has the potential to be yet another fish-out-of-water race comedy. I know it's based on Chris Rock's own experiences, but without Rock actually in the show, I'm not expecting much. And with the show (along with Eve) up against Alias and Survivor, I'm guessing the network doesn't expect much, either. With the failure of Miss Match, a show in which Alicia Silverstone played a matchmaker with a messy personal life, I wouldn't expect much more from Love, Inc., with Shannon Doherty in a similar role. Sex, Lies, and Secrets is clearly their answer to Desperate Housewives. Denise Richards will bring some viewers, and the 9 PM Tuesday slot has potential for it to do well, but it doesn't sound like it'll bring anything new to the table.

Actually, it looks like they're the only network without a genre show in their plans. This is a network that's as irrelevant as it was ten years ago, but without the desire to take risks you'd expect from an underdog.
I was really surprised that Kevin Hill got the axe. I knew that it was on the bubble, but Hill and Mars were the two shows that were finally bringing respectability to UPN. By killing one and burying the other, they're dropping back to where they were years ago, but without the occasional genre show to spice things up. Actually, it looks like they're the only network without a genre show in their plans. This is a network that's as irrelevant as it was ten years ago, but without the desire to take risks you'd expect from an underdog.

Alison: So all those 'they've cancelled wrestling' rumors were wrong. I was shocked to see wrestling on the schedule! I don't know how many wrestling fans are interested in staying in on a Friday night though. But otherwise, I think this is a pretty strong slate for UPN. I think they've done some good counter-programming. Everybody Hates Chris is easily their strongest new show, and I don't think Everybody Hates Chris will have the same audience as Alias, Survivor and The O.C. None of those are targeted at African-Americans and none are sitcom. I think it could work out well for them.

But Love, Inc. and Secrets and Lies certainly represent the demographic UPN claims to be interested in. The UPN Thursday night sitcom block has something for everyone and may hope to pick up some viewers disenfranchised by the downfall of NBC's Must See TV. They are taking some chances here, but they have an even chance at success.

Adam: You're definitely seeing the glass as half-full here! Personally, I hope you're right, as I think there is definitely room for six networks with unique identities, but I'm not seeing a whole lot from UPN that gets me excited. I definitely see your point about the opportunity to pick up the disenfranchised ex-NBC viewers on Thursday.

I'm not sure about the Friday Night Wrestling connection, either. I did a little Googling, and the UPN/WWE contract for Smackdown is up in Fall of '06. I'm guessing that they want to build a solid Thursday base with the comedies, and will use Smackdown to keep a spot warm for whatever they want to roll out next year.

Alison: I guess they are saying to wrestling, "If we have to keep you a little longer, we're dumping you on Fridays." It's a big chance to take with their highest rated show, but what do they care if they only have it for a little bit longer? Perhaps I am being positive about UPN, but I feel like they're taking a real chance and I'm just hoping it works out for them. It's hard because we're not entirely their demographic. Perhaps we should interview some 30-year-old black women. But back to the Chris Rock show. Can it make any dent without Chris Rock actually in it? I think by UPN ratings standards, getting even a fraction of the people who would watch a sitcom with Chris Rock in it would be a plus. And I think Chris Rock's involvement is enough to get some people to watch. Even I'm curious. If it is a hit, it could carry that whole Thursday block.

And I think at this point America's Next Top Model airs three nights a week on their schedule. In these upfronts it's only on twice. That's a positive step. They need more than one hit show to carry a network and it's sort of sad that a repeat of that show gets higher ratings than their original programming. But it seems, in cutting down the show's repeats, that they're weening themselves off it, which can only serve them well.

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