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TV upfronts! The very best time of year!


 

The U.S. networks have announced most of their cancellations and pickups for the coming season, kicking off the annual round of frantic, high-pressure sales to advertisers and (of course) Canadian networks looking for stuff to simulcast.

This is a more sensible pickup season than the last couple, which is not to say that everything (or anything) is going to work, just that there aren’t a lot of renewals or new shows that seem like obviously bad ideas. This is actually less fun for the outside observer than a season that has stuff like “Work It” or “Animal Practice” or a second season of “Touch,” ideas that were clearly doomed. NBC in particular has been sensible in an almost ruthless way. It canceled almost all its shows, including even shows like Go On and The New Normal that its executives clearly liked, and is going to try and make a fresh start next season, building on its lone hit The Voice. It’s like the head of the network, Bob Greenblatt, has wiped out the history of all the bad moves he’s made, leaving only the good move – The Voice – and trying to see if he can get a do-over.

Then we have Fox, a more stable network but one that has its own problems: the gruesome The Following was a success despite poor reviews, but most of its shows fall into the category of “demo hit” rather than “hit” (New Girl and Bob’s Burgers) and the decline of American Idol means that it can’t depend on that one franchise to make its seasons look good overall. So there are a lot of new shows coming with high-concept ideas that can grab attention on their own, since there aren’t many strong timeslots where they can incubate potential new hits. The news that 24 may be coming back with 12 episodes (making a mockery of the very title) sounds a lot like a network trying to reach back into the good old days of the ’00s when they were riding high, but it also sounds like the kind of thing that people will notice, something that could be an event.

If Fox is trying to make some noise this season, then CBS is arguably more focused on what will happen a year from now. Its advantage over the other networks depends on a bunch of aging, expensive hits, including one that is definitely going off the air after this year (How I Met Your Mother) and another one that probably should (Two and a Half Men). Its more recent shows, like 2 Broke Girls and Hawaii 5-0 and Person of Interest have done all right but have not caught fire (the crummy writing of the first two shows doesn’t help). The question this year is whether any of its new shows or existing shows can take over when the older hits decline, or whether it will wind up like NBC did, and spend years pining for the good old days.

And then there’s ABC, but I don’t even pretend to understand them. It seems like it should be a pretty successful network, given that it has a fair number of hits, including one of the few big success stories of the last couple of years, Scandal. But it’s actually the fourth-place network, and it doesn’t seem to be planning to change its strategies at all: this coming season it will double down on soapy shows, corporate synergy with Disney, and “hip” comedies (replacing Happy Endings with a bunch of comedies that sound virtually identical). The corporate-synergy strategy will at least give them a chance to cash in on the Marvel movie franchise with the S.H.I.E.L.D. series – but this is more of a potential hit than a guaranteed hit: there’s very little connection between the popularity of superheroes in the movies and on TV, and TV superheroes often bomb when their movie counterparts are doing great, and vice versa.

If there’s a theme that jumps out from most of the pickups, it’s less about the content than the people behind the shows: the watchword is experience. A lot of the attention in recent seasons went to new, young creators who hadn’t done much TV before (usually paired up with an experienced TV writer, assigned by the studio to babysit the new people and make sure they don’t get out of hand). There are some of those this season, but there are a lot more old hands. In the comedy field, for example, NBC has placed a lot of its bets on experienced creators like Jason Katims (About a Boy), Victor Fresco (whose Sean Saves the World has a similar title to his Andy Richter Controls the Universe and a very similar premise to his Better off Ted) and Bill Lawrence (Undateable). Fox is pinning its comedy hopes on another show from Lawrence and – in what is considered the most artistically promising comedy of the season – an ensemble cop comedy from the producers of Parks & Recreation.

Lawrence is one of the biggest winners of the whole cycle, getting two broadcast sitcoms in addition to a new TBS show and his still-running Cougar Town; CBS is depending on the other most prolific man in comedy, Chuck Lorre, to come up with its next hit. In troubled times, the networks turn to the people who have done it before and, hopefully, can do it again. That’s why the network executives want Jack Bauer back, and with him, Howard Gordon, another one of those prolific producers who knows how to give networks a solid product.

This emphasis on experience gives me some hope for my favourite hobby-horse, the future of the studio-audience sitcom. (Every network has at least one new one except ABC, which has turned completely against the format even though Last Man Standing is more popular than most of its other sitcoms; like I said, I don’t quite understand how ABC works.) There will be about as many new ones this year as last year, but most of the new ones are in the hands of experienced creators who have worked in both single-camera and multi-camera formats: Fresco, Lawrence, Greg Garcia. These guys have all done consistently acclaimed work in single-camera, and Lawrence proved with Cougar Town that he could make a show work after a rough start. Three-camera shows are even harder to do well and there’s no guarantee that any of them will pull it off. (Garcia, for example, made Yes, Dear before he did My Name is Earl and Raising Hope; Yes, Dear just didn’t have a lot of room for his weird touches, so it wound up bland.) But they at least have a better chance of pulling it off, of proving that there is still room for individuality and quirks of creatorial personality in this format. At any rate, this is certainly better than in fall of 2011 when we were hoping in vain that the guy who made the Sex and the City movies would somehow give us the next smart sitcom.

Another thing that remains to be seen is how networks begin, gradually, to acclimate its audiences and advertisers to the idea of 13-episode cable-style seasons. I’ve said before that I don’t really agree that this is the way for broadcast TV to go, but it’s something a lot of creators and executives would like to do more of, if they could. The 13-episode “limited” 24 revival is an example of how this could go. I don’t think anybody expects Jack Bauer to just settle down and retire if his comeback is a success. But by announcing it as a limited-run series instead of an ongoing revival, the network hopefully does two things. It puts less brutal pressure on the show; if it doesn’t perform up to expectations, it doesn’t get “canceled,” it just finishes its run and goes away. And it hopefully makes the home audience see every new Jack Bauer series as an event in itself, not just a ho-hum new season.

24 is arguably a good test case for this strategy, since it already proved that a broadcast show could start its season very late and still get a lot of attention. And that’s what broadcast networks are going to need if they want to do shorter seasons: a way to create hype not just for the premiere of a series, which is easy, but for every subsequent season premiere. Second seasons on cable can be the subject of tremendous hype, because the network doesn’t have that many shows to promote at once. But something like The Following, which is expected to have short seasons due to Kevin Bacon’s schedule, will need to make people care that it’s back. Hyping new seasons as limited events is one way of making them seem like, well, events. It’s like announcing a play as a “limited run,” even if you want it to run a year, in an effort to get people down to the box office right now.

Oh, and this doesn’t quite fit anywhere, but a couple of people asked me why I thought the John Mulaney pilot didn’t make it. I haven’t seen it, and have heard conflicting things about it from those who did, but what I did hear (plus a reading of the script) made me doubt it was going to be the saviour of the sitcom. It was in many ways similar to the same network’s Whitney Cummings sitcom – a non-acting comedian writing a pilot heavily based on stand-up; even the director was the same. I thought the Whitney Cummings show was sometimes good (more so in the first than the more timid second and final season), but most people didn’t, and there wasn’t much reason to believe that Mulaney was going to do that much better. I’m a long, long way from trusting NBC’s judgment on anything, but I’m at the very least not shocked that they didn’t go for it.

With the rejection of Mulaney, the end of 30 Rock and the implosion of the Up All Night retooling project, that leaves Lorne Michaels with no story shows on NBC. I guess he’ll have to settle for just producing every late night show except Carson Daly’s – and don’t think he’s not coming after you, Carson. But we can talk about that at the next round of upfronts, when the U.S. networks cancel most of the shows they picked up yesterday, and Canada once again plans its TV schedules around bidding wars over U.S. shows.


 
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