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upfronts 2010

Vulture’s TV Upfronts Preview: The New Shows, the Big Moves, the Hail Marys

Next week, New York welcomes the upfronts, the annual event at which TV networks hold glitzy presentations to announce their new fall lineups to the ad community, hoping to inspire them to spend, spend, spend. As opposed to last year, when the networks — shell-shocked from the plummeting recessionary ad market — announced their shows and then ran for cover, 2010 finds them feeling more confident amid expectations of a big rise in ad revenue. The spectacle and parties are back, and this year Vulture will be exhaustively covering the whole thing. We'll be bringing you the network announcements as they happen, tweeting directly from the presentations (follow us at Vultureblog), giving you analysis of every network's picks and strategy, and digging up behind-the-scenes scoops on the machinations, deals, and overhauling that went into this year's new (and rejected) crop of shows. Before all the pomp, circumstance, and shameless promotion begins on Monday, it's a good time for a pregame analysis of the nets' likely moves this year.

FOX
Look for Fox to rip a page from last year's successful playbook: add as little new programming as possible in the fall, keep as many shows in existing time slots as it can — and pray for a really great World Series matchup (think Yankees versus Phillies).

That's not to say the network won't take some chances next season: A big comedy push has been in the works for months. Its biggest gun in the war of funny: Running Wilde, a mini–Arrested Development reunion featuring Will Arnett in front of the camera and the AD brain trust of Mitch Hurwitz and Jim Vallely behind it. Arnett plays a rich Beverly Hills dumbass who falls for a do-gooder (Felicity's Keri Russell), and comedy geeks are already slobbering.

Also on the comedy front, Fox has already slated My Name Is Earl creator Greg Garcia's Keep Hope Alive (no, Jesse Jackson isn't in it; it's about a single dad raising an infant while the one-night-stand mother's on death row), and is strongly considering the Friends-like Traffic Light. Don't be shocked if Fox apes ABC and launches all its new comedies together, though a safer play would be to pair two newbies with Glee. Also, don't forget that Fox is the network most committed to year-round programming — expect lots of talk about saving shows for spring and even summer.

As for dramas, while Shawn Ryan will formally unveil his not–The Shield cop show RideAlong, the show that could have people buzzing is (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb's Lone Star. It's a big, almost cable-like soap about a Texas con man juggling two wives: Big Love meets Dallas, with a dash of John Edwards timeliness. People who've seen the pilot are already comparing newcomer Jimmy Wolk to a young George Clooney.

The one storm cloud hanging over the Fox upfront will be Simon Cowell's departure from American Idol and questions about his replacement (and whether Paula Abdul will join him on The X Factor in fall 2011). Fox has said it won't talk much about either issue next week.

NBC

Leaving aside Dick Wolf's sad attempt to play spoiler, the Peacock has been shockingly on message in the days leading up to its upfront. The mantra: We're going to spend what it takes to win, our pilots are great, and we're willing to take some big chances. Oh, and that whole Ben Silverman thing? Never happened.

What nobody at NBC is saying is that this will be the current regime's one and only chance to prove themselves before the Kabletown Comcast dudes take over, most likely by year's end. So, yes, of course it's NBC's best development season ever; Jeff Gaspin and his team have no choice but to be upbeat.

Still, NBC really does feel like it's got its act at least somewhat together this year with the shows it's already okayed. The script for anthology Love Bites, from Sex and the City's Cindy Chupack, is actually funny (don't be shocked if the show ends up Thursdays at 10). We love that NBC is doing a 24-style conspiracy thriller with The Event. And J.J. Abrams updating Hart to Hart with two hot African-American leads in Undercovers? We're there (at least for the first episode). Also reportedly picked up: Garza, with TV perennial Jimmy Smits as a Supreme Court justice, and Kathy Bates's Kindred, a legal drama from that other TV mainstay, David E. Kelley. (Look for both shows to be revamped before hitting the air.)

Scheduling-wise, if Love Bites doesn't end up on Thursdays, we've heard NBC has discussed the idea of airing new half-hours such as Outsourced(about an American running a call center in India) in the 10 p.m. time slot. But it's more likely that NBC will try to roll out its new comedies either on another night (maybe Mondays?), or have them share time slots with existing Thursday half-hours.

Biggest burning question: How many lame, self-deprecating jokes will NBC execs and stars attempt to make about L'Affaire Coco or the failed Leno-at-10 experiment? We're still not ready to laugh about that.

ABC

The Always Ballsy Competitor was mocked for announcing an all-new comedy night last May, then got the last laugh when Modern Family turned into a breakout hit (and Cougar Town and The Middle fared decently). It seems likely the network will continue to push hard for laughs next season (it has already announced pickups of three comedies), while praying it can get some much-needed traction on the drama front.

On the comedy side, look for ABC to bolster its Wednesday Modern Family block with one, maybe two new shows. It also wouldn't be a shocker to see the network expanding comedy to another night (Tuesday or Thursdays are most likely). Matthew Perry's Mr. Sunshine (where he plays a sports-arena owner) seems like the kind of broad show that could open a night — perhaps his old 8 p.m. Thursday slot? Also on the schedule: Happy Endings, with Elisha Cuthbert as a bride who ditches her groom at the altar, and Better Together, with Privileged's Joanna Garcia as one of two sisters in different stages of their romantic relationships.

Dramas are where ABC really needs help (Two words: Happy Town. Two words mashed together: FlashForward. Two final words: both canceled). But there's promise: The Desperate Housewives network may redefine the family drama yet again with No Ordinary Family, about a clan of superhero freaks. We're also keen to see whether Generation Y — a documentary-style dramedy based on a Scandanavian format — can be the new thirtysomething. Also on for next year: The cop show Detroit 187, with Michael Imperioli, and the Jerry Bruckheimer legal procedural The Whole Truth.

CBS

CBS also has some issues with several 10 p.m. slots on its lineup. Friday's Numbers was all-but-canceled weeks ago, while Cold Case seems unlikely to return on Sundays. Both CSI: Miami and CSI: N.Y. are no longer setting the world on fire, and while they'll be back, don't be shocked if one or more ends up in a new time slot. All of the network's development-season buzz has centered around a new Hawaii Five O. Hopefully it turned out better than NBC's Rockford revamp.

CBS's biggest headache right now is Thursdays, where Survivor and CSI have ruled audience tallies for years. But while the Tribe is still strong at 8, CSI is down more than 20 percent this season, stunting the growth of lead-out The Mentalist. Some figure CBS will just swap CSI and Mentalist, but we're betting on something bigger — perhaps shifting white-hot Monday comedy The Big Bang Theory to Thursdays. It would be a big upgrade on a night movie advertisers pay a premium to be part of.

Leaving aside Dick Wolf's sad attempt to play spoiler, the Peacock has been shockingly on message in the days leading up to its upfront. The mantra: We're going to spend what it takes to win, our pilots are great, and we're willing to take some big chances. Oh, and that whole Ben Silverman thing? Never happened.

Other than the Chuck Lorre sitcom Mike & Molly, however, CBS hasn't announced any new shows yet: Eye execs value secrecy more than the mafia. But there's been decent buzz surrounding an untitled John Wells medical drama ("from the producer of ER!") and a Brett Ratner action caper called Chaos. Suddenly scary skinny Forest Whitaker also stars in a Criminal Minds spinoff nobody really wants to see (do you?), and Vulture is also rooting for Livin' on a Prayer, which, despite its chilling Bon Jovi overtones, is actually a new comedy from How I Met Your Mother creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. There's also the (allegedly) All in the Family–esque William Shatner half-hour based on the overhyped Twitter stream Shitmydadsays.

And while nobody knows if Charlie Sheen and Two and a Half Men producer Warner Bros. will come to terms on a new deal, CBS execs seem quite Zen about the whole matter and are proceeding as if everything will be done by Wednesday's announcement. Perhaps they just figure that Charlie wouldn't dare miss the chance to attend the Eye's swanky upfront bash.

THE CW

The tiniest network continues to contend with tiny ratings (the good (?) news: Everyone's ratings are dipping!), which they counter by pointing to their young demos. Last year they scored a hit with Vampire Diaries, but struck out with Melrose Place 2.0; makes you think they wouldn't dare try another reboot. Or would they? The network's pickups probably won't come until early next week, but there's been strong buzz around a new take on La Femme Nikita.

We're also hoping CW says yes to Ridley Scott's Nomads. It's about broke kids who end up working secret missions for the CIA. We've all been there. But the big question mark is whether newcomer Life Unexpected gets a second shot to find an audience. It all depends on how much CW execs love their development (and the early word is: a lot).

TBS/TNT

Wait a minute, they're not big broadcast nets! True, but for the second consecutive year, the Turner-owned channels are holding their pitch to ad buyers at the same time as the Big Five. It's clearly a move to show their increasing size and power — the biggest blow against television segregation since the abolition of the ACE Awards! — and this year they have Exhibit A in the case that they're worthy of hanging with the big boys: Conan O'Brien is scheduled to take a break from his tour in order to come tout his new TBS show.