The first new fall series that ABC showed off last week was “Wife Swap,” a family friendly show involving real-life moms trading homes for two weeks and inexplicably given a 10 p.m. time slot after kids have gone to bed.
That, by itself, was a telling example of the rapid pace of change in the television industry.
Reality’s new status and comedy’s decline, the new use of reruns and other offbeat strategies were all in evidence during the annual week that broadcast networks unveil their fall schedules to thousands of advertising executives.
Through it all, CBS remained the staunch traditionalist — a position it can afford as the nation’s most popular network, and odds-on favorite to continue that status next year.
The networks did what they do best — put on a show — as they tried to persuade advertisers to buy billions of dollars worth of commercial time.
CBS hired the Who. Usher sang for UPN. Lenny Kravitz rocked out for the WB. Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard sang for Fox. And all the networks plied their guests with food and drink.
Just a year ago, reality was still a dirty word at these presentations. None of the six networks scheduled any reality show that hadn’t already been proven, like “Survivor.”
This year, eight previously unseen reality shows made it onto schedules. ABC played clips of its two, “Wife Swap” and “The Benefactor,” before showing any of their new dramas or comedies.
Before, there was a perception that if advertisers were going to take a chance on something new, it had to be scripted. That’s plainly changed. Results can’t lie: 12 of the year’s top 20 shows among the young audiences advertisers crave are unscripted, said Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group.
Sitcom a struggling genreCBS, which has no new reality fare on its schedule, played to latent fears.
In its schedule presentation, CBS showed clips of “Fear Factor” contestants surrounded by worms or gagging on disgusting “food.”
“Product placement, anyone?” asked CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves.
With the loss of “Friends,” “Frasier,” and “Sex and the City,” situation comedies are at a low ebb. Don’t look for any immediate improvement. CBS, ABC and NBC are introducing a total of only six new sitcoms this fall, and some look like they won’t last long.
Introducing new comedies is hard, unless there’s a proven pedigree like the”Friends” spinoff, “Joey,” said Kevin Reilly, NBC entertainment president.
“The best way to get comedy on the schedule right now may be to keep it off in the short term,” he said.
ABC, which had been trying to build with new comedies over the past few years, made an abrupt about-face. The 11 new series it ordered for next year include only two comedies. There’s not much to choose from, said Stephen McPherson, ABC entertainment president.
“There have been a lot of rip-offs of other shows,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of good material.”
Networks are searching for other comic forms. The WB has two sketch comedy shows scheduled with Jeff Foxworthy and Drew Carey. Kelsey Grammer is making a “Laugh-In”-style show for Fox. Some of the reality shows, such as “Wife Swap,” are effectively being positioned as comedies.
“The biggest comedy stars to come out of this year are Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie,” said Gail Berman, Fox entertainment president.
What's on when?Fox set three different schedules for June, November and January, the boldest move yet toward year-round scheduling, a concept networks usually just give lip service to. It’s partly out of necessity, since postseason baseball makes it hard for Fox to establish a new schedule in the fall.
The risk lies in confusing viewers; “The Bernie Mac” show will have three different time slots in the next seven months.
Yet other networks are trying variations of the same theme, most prominently in how they are scheduling popular dramas.
Instead of keeping “The West Wing,” “NYPD Blue” and “24” on the schedule year-round and pre-empting them or interrupting with reruns, these dramas will run their seasons straight through. When they’re done, different programs replace them for limited runs.
But Moonves questioned whether economic reality makes this possible. Generally, networks need at least two runs of a show to make back the money paid for producing them.
“I don’t quite understand how you can afford to do ‘NYPD Blue’ for a certain period and then do a different show,” he said. “It’s a difficult nut to crack.”
One increasingly popular way is to rerun shows immediately. Fox has built same-week reruns of three of its new shows into its schedule this summer, which not only saves money but gives developing shows more exposure.
NBC will do the same thing with “The Apprentice” on Saturday nights. Even CBS is trying it: reruns of one of its three “CSI” shows will air Saturdays.
For TV viewers, who don’t get to see any of these shows (except the Fox ones) until autumn, the real question is whether any of them are worth watching.
Here are three potential gems: “Kevin Hill,” a UPN romantic comedy starring Taye Diggs as a busy lawyer who unexpectedly becomes a dad; “Jack & Bobby,” a gripping WB pilot about the boyhood of a future president; and “Clubhouse,” a CBS show about a 16-year-old batboy for the New York Empires.