On TV, confidence tops creativity
By David Bauder
Jimmy Kimmel peered out at a crowd of advertisers and media buyers who had gathered to preview next season's ABC schedule and let them know he wasn't keeping their secret.
"We know you have money this year, by the way," he said.
Broadcast television's annual meeting of sales pitches last week presented an interesting dichotomy.
Financially, network executives anticipate their tough years are over, that advertisers will be coming back and that their business has a real future. They sounded confident, talked of swinging for the fences.
Creatively, they couldn't match the boldness of their words. There was a numbing sameness to many of the new shows presented and nothing to match the genuine excitement created last year at this time by "Modern Family" and "The Good Wife."
The numbers guys anticipate that billions of dollars in advertising for next year's shows will be sold over the next few weeks — an improvement from last year. Those expectations come, in part, due to positive signals in their "scatter" market, or ads sold in smaller increments than the purchases made during the annual spring "upfront" season that comes over the next few weeks.
"It's a total change to what we felt a year ago at this time," said Rob Tuck, ad sales director at the CW network. "You can clearly see that it's time. The advertisers know they have to get their messages out there."
Despite the economy, the number of high-definition TVs in American homes has grown rapidly, and people want to use them. Big events such as football games and awards shows jumped in the ratings this year, and the Super Bowl set a record for most-watched television program ever. Broadcasters also realize the Internet is less a threat to television watching as it is a supplement that keeps people interested in the shows, said Peter Rice, entertainment chairman for the Fox Networks Group.
As a result, he said, "We have invested very heavily in development this year."
NBC, in a turnaround from recent years, also poured money into developing new series. That's partly symbolic — the network had alienated many in Hollywood and needed to prove it could play well with others — and practical. NBC needs hits.
So what did that infusion mean creatively?
Not much, at least according to the brief previews seen last week.
"It was underwhelming," said Don Seaman, analyst at the media buying firm MPG, who provides advice on where advertisers should place their money.
As they anticipate the retirement of Fox's "24" and the continued success of CBS' crime-solving dramas, networks are flooding the market with new cop and legal dramas. Tom Selleck plays a New York City police chief, Jimmy Smits a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, Dana Delany a former neurosurgeon turned medical examiner, Rob Morrow a defense attorney, Kathy Bates a crusty lawyer, Michael Imperioli a Detroit homicide detective.
And those are just some of the shows we know.
Considering Mark Harmon isn't leaving "NCIS," David Caruso is staying on "CSI: Miami" and Julianna Margulies will remain a lawyer on "The Good Wife," TV's criminal justice system is awfully busy.
"Please, no more medical, cop or lawyer shows," Seaman said. "Google other careers."
There is a perceived need for high-octane action with "24" going away. That might backfire. CBS' "Hawaii Five-0" remake looks so fast and explosive it may put people on edge instead of enjoying some of the loveliest scenery on Earth. Sometimes action veers toward self-parody: When a clip of NBC's new "Chase" showed a U.S. marshal jumping off a bridge in pursuit of a bad guy, the tendency was to stifle a laugh.
One bright sign could be the comeback of Friday nights. That's where CBS put Selleck's drama, and NBC scheduled Smits' show "Outlaw." The CW has ditched "America's Top Model" repeats on Friday to have all original programming on five nights for the first time in its five-year history.
Far from its stodgy image, CBS proved the boldest network last week. The network canceled shows that would probably still make it on other networks, such as "New Adventures of Old Christine," and changed the nights of several of its hits.
"The shows that have moved have very loyal fan bases," said Kelly Kahl, CBS' top scheduling executive. "The thinking is these fans are going to follow the shows wherever they go."
Network TV has seen a comedy revival in recent years, with Fox and ABC making it a priority this season. Two new comedies for the fall that most bear watching are CBS' "(Bleep) My Dad Says" and Fox's "Running Wilde." The former has William Shatner playing an Archie Bunker-like character whose words are sent out by his son on a popular Twitter feed. Fox's show has Will Arnett as a rich playboy pursuing his childhood sweetheart, played by Keri Russell.
The former has a great idea, the latter a great pedigree. Highlight clips shown to advertisers on both were laugh-deficient, however.