upfronts 2011

ABC Status Update: Can the Ailing Network Bounce Back With a New Boss?

If you’re just tuning in, all this week on Vulture we’re previewing next week’s TV upfront announcements — when all the big broadcast networks reveal their new shows and schedules — by taking a deep dive into each of the Big Four nets. We’re breaking down where they stand in the Nielsen horse race right now, dissecting their various wants and needs, highlighting pilots with strong odds of making it to series, and serving up our unsolicited advice as to what sorts of scheduling moves we think might serve them well. We’ve already tackled NBC and Fox (who present their lineups Monday); now it’s ABC’s turn. The Alphabet has seen its ratings crumble and its freshmen from fall 2010 rejected by viewers. Can new boss Paul Lee, the maestro behind ABC Family’s domination of young girls, work his magic on a bigger stage?

Where they stand: Last summer, ABC parted ways with longtime chief Steve McPherson; turns out he got out just in time. It was a pretty lousy season for the Alphabet, which continued to be stuck behind CBS and Fox in overall viewership, and just barely escaped the embarrassment of replacing NBC as the fourth-place network with viewers under 50 (though that close race was mostly owed to the fact that ABC doesn’t have a strong sports franchise to prop up its numbers, the way Sunday Night Football boosts NBC). A slew of new fall series (remember No Ordinary Family? My Generation? The Whole Truth?) were pretty much dead on arrival, while onetime tentpoles such as Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy continued their march down the Nielsen charts. Giving V a second chance also proved futile, as viewers continued to ignore its less-than-compelling storytelling. On the bright side: a very strong fall (and decent spring) for Dancing With the Stars, a winter edition of Wipeout, and the emergence of Monday night’s Castle as the procedural success story ABC has needed for years. And spring saw the successful (and much-delayed) launch of Body of Proof, another potential procedural hit for ABC.

What they’ll say: We knew things needed to change at ABC, which is why we brought in Paul Lee before things got too bad. We’ve got a new energy and a slew of compelling new pilots that we think will help us recapture our spot as the network of choice for women too old for ABC Family but too young for CBS. Nobody offers as much family-friendly programming as we do, from the all-ages excitement of Dancing With the Stars and Wipeout to the comedy goodness of Modern Family and The Middle. And look: Tim Allen’s back! Happy days are here again.

Buzz shows: You don’t spend months chasing the aforementioned Mr. Allen and then not put his show on the air. His new family comedy has been declared a lock for a pickup by multiple media outlets; we’re not in a position to disagree. Similar prophecies abound around the net’s long-in-the-works Charlie’s Angels reboot, though we still aren’t sure why the network would want to look back. Also red hot, per most accounts: Darren Star’s untitled soap (you may have heard it called Good Christian Bitches, but it’s hard to see that awesome title sticking). We continue to hear good things about retro drama Pan Am and the modern fairy tale Once Upon a Time. And against all odds, many insiders believe ABC will actually order Poe, its wacky drama in which the famed scribe plays detective. If this actually happens, we believe Vulture has finally found our new Cavemen.

Biggest scheduling question mark: Does ABC expand its comedy brand to another night, perhaps Tuesdays? Fact is, Modern Family is the only runaway comedy hit on the network; we like Cougar Town and The Middle, but they’re not monster players. Still: Cougar Town has a very loyal audience that would likely follow it to Tuesdays, perhaps paired with a second season of its younger twin Happy Endings. Or, if it really believes in Tim Allen’s new effort, perhaps ABC gets sentimental and lets the funnyman return to his old 9 p.m. Tuesday haunt? ABC might also simply stick with comedy in the 10 p.m. hour on Wednesdays and let Allen’s show benefit from a time slot adjacent to Modern Family.

Potential surprise: Longtime 8 p.m. Sunday anchor Extreme Makeover: Home Improvement could end up on hiatus in the fall.

Free scheduling advice: We’d like to see ABC give Housewives two distinct seasons, or even a Lost-like uninterrupted, repeat-free run in January. The network needs to use its very valuable 9 p.m. Sunday real estate to try out something fresh, while Housewives would benefit from an uninterrupted run. If Good Christian Bitches is as strong as some say, why not give it a full summer of promotion and let it launch in the Housewives slot?

Upfront theme song: Robyn’s “Get Myself Together” or Aloe Blacc’s “I Need a Dollar.”

Bottom line: While Lee proved his programming prowess at ABC Family, he’s been slow to reveal his strategy at ABC. He’s pretty much avoided the media (perhaps wisely, since it’s kept the focus on NBC as the “loser” network in need of a reboot), and even agents and studio types say he keeps his cards close; this makes it tough to predict just how he’ll try to rebuild the Alphabet. The early buzz is that Lee very much likes how his first roster of new programming came out, suggesting ABC could order up to a dozen new shows for next season with an eye on finding several big hits. The good news: While ABC had a tough season this year, it’s still got a solid enough base of success that the addition of two or three new hits should be enough to once again make it competitive.

Previous Upfronts posts: Fox Status Update: Where Does the Top Network Stand Going Into Its X Factor Year?
NBC Status Update: Where Does the Fourth-Place Network Stand Heading Into Upfronts?
TV Buzz Check: What Big Moves Will the Networks Make During Upfronts?

ABC Status Update: Can the Ailing Network Bounce Back With a New Boss?