Starting next week, the broadcast networks will unveil their fall programming lineups in what is known as an upfront presentation, or upfront, for short. These are really more for the advertisers than the general public -- after all, they're primarily showcases that allow the networks the chance to sell significant chunks of their ad time before the new season starts. More than a few lofty promises and premises will be delivered by the head of the network (if not a couple of out-and-out apologies as well), a few executives will trumpet the superiority of their network's demographics (one possible example: "We're up 2.3 percent with Women 25-34 on Friday nights versus two of three opposing networks!") and some of the bigger shows' stars will make brief (and sometimes painfully awkward) appearances. There will be trailer-length versions -- and occasionally, full episodes -- of new programs shown to the audience, some of which will be met with rapt, almost stony silence, others with rich, hearty guffaws. (Pity the network whose comedies' clips achieve the former, and dramas the latter. And fear for the executive who picked them for the lineup.)
So what do you, the viewer at home, take from all this hoopla? Well, simply put, next week you'll find out that some of your favorite TV shows will return, while some others will not. The television upfront law of averages dictates that while there will likely be few shocks in the announcements, there's bound to be at least one or two real jaw-dropping decisions a year regarding the programs that are being kept (i.e.: a low-rated drama kept thanks to a rabid fan base -- and a deep, unmentioned license discount from the producing studio -- or a top-rated sitcom being plucked from its longtime perch and transplanted to a different night and time altogether).
The new schedules are likely still far from locked, so this week, I'm going to take the opportunity to make a few suggestions to the networks. Do I think they'll make a lick of difference? Not in the slightest. But hey, since I'm already here...
NBC (upfront on May 16): NBC is still smarting from several development cycles worth of poor choices, so this time around, I think it's time to get back to basics. Thursdays are a legacy night for the network; I also think that night is the key to righting the ship. The recent try at a three-hour comedy block hasn't worked out, so I'd suggest finishing the night's two hours of sitcoms with a drama.
The perennially popular "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" or this past spring's surprise hit "Harry's Law," a legal drama from David E. Kelley and starring Kathy Bates, might give them the solid night they've been sorely lacking. ("Law" did decent numbers on Monday nights with very little lead-in support, and could actually grow if there was a real audience in front of it.) With a stable Thursday night line-up, NBC could then concentrate on other holes in the schedule.
FOX (also May 16): While "American Idol" remains a springtime juggernaut (and is bound to stay that way for a while longer), the addition of Simon Cowell's hotly-anticipated "The X Factor" means that FOX executives likely feel like they are sitting in the catbird seat, at least at the start of the fall.
I think it's a safe bet that "The X Factor" will be used as a launchpad for FOX's new shows, but I'm not sure that a live-action comedy needs to be one of them; there are several intriguing drama series possibilities already in development that fit the network's edgy brand and might grow into a Monday or Wednesday counter-programming hit. I do, however, think that FOX really could use at least one more traditional (or at least traditional-for-them) sitcom, a show that could potentially shore up their Tuesday night line-up.
ABC (May 17): It's been a roller coaster ride at ABC -- on the one hand, "Dancing with the Stars" is more popular than it has ever been, "Modern Family" is rapidly becoming the top-rated comedy series on TV, and shows like "Castle" and "The Middle" are growing, both in quality and ratings. But then you have to consider -- before "Body of Proof" started anyway -- that ABC had not launched a remotely successful drama since "Castle" premiered two years ago, while shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Desperate Housewives" continue to shed viewers as they age.
This past season, the development issue has extended to comedies -- none of the crop that hit the air in the sweet spot following "Modern Family" have been able to capitalize on that show's massive success. ABC has frequently been the network that takes the biggest leaps of faith on high-risk shows; if there was ever a time to do exactly that, it would be this fall. It's already being reported that ABC is having an excellent pilot season; while that's no guarantee of success, it's a good sign.
CBS (May 18): The strongest of the broadcast networks has an enviable level of consistency, with only a few misfires this season (ones that most of their competitors would have thought of as successes). Moving "Survivor" to Wednesday nights has paid off, so too did the transplanting of hit comedy "The Big Bang Theory" to Thursday. "NCIS" is the top-rated scripted drama series on TV, "NCIS: L.A." is a smash, too. So what could possibly go wrong? How about Monday night, which was among the three or four nights a week that CBS frequently dominated?
The ugly separation of Charlie Sheen from "Two and a Half Men" may have done permanent damage to CBS on Mondays. The network has tried to patch the spot with repeats and replacements, but the Monday ratings have been slipping since the anchor show went on forced hiatus. It's not likely that the show will end up being cancelled -- CBS and Warner Bros. (the producing studio) both claim to want the show to continue -- but it is distinctly possible that a revamped "Two and a Half Men" won't regain the viewers it has already lost.
Comedy development has probably been kicked into overdrive, with the goal of finding strong replacement shows, but the fruits of that probably won't be seen until midseason at the earliest. My best guess is that CBS will move forward with the reworking of "Two and a Half Men," but with fingers crossed.
The CW (May 19): The fifth network -- with its five nights of programming -- could have a surprising amount of holes to fill. The end of "Smallville," which wraps up its 10th and final season this Friday, could mean that a couple of shows that were potentially on the chopping block -- namely spy thriller "Nikita" and the long-running soap "One Tree Hill" -- might avoid cancellation, but there's no guarantee of that. A show I like a lot, "Supernatural," will be back for a seventh season, along with "90210," "The Vampire Diaries" and "Gossip Girl." Obviously, the CW needs to find that buzzworthy young audience hit that will keep them in the broadcast network conversation, but with a significantly smaller amount of program development than the other broadcasters, that's no easy task.
I'll be paying attention to the upfront announcements next week and let you know over the next couple of months about what will be happening around the dial this fall.