Upfront Reality

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CBS chair and CEO Leslie Moonves took the stage at the upfronts today. No, we haven't accidentally rerun yesterday's column, though CBS did hold its presentation a day earlier. Thanks to corporate integration at Viacom, Moonves now also oversees young-adult-oriented UPN, in addition to CBS, the much older network, which airs shows about potbellied guys over 35. At CBS's presentation, Moonves gets to tell advertisers that they're crazy to focus on viewers under 35. At UPN, he tells them that's exactly what they want to be doing. He also gets to say things like — referring to rap star Eve, who has a sitcom on the new schedule —"Her new show is going to be off the hizzle."

Translation of "off the hizzle": Off the hook. Translation of "off the hook": You're old.

So what's on UPN's schizzedule? The five-days-a-week network had holes to fill, having lost its marquee drama, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and having been unable to find an audience for last season's best new drama, the midseason "Platinum." They also had the problem, as advertisers say, of "identifying their brand": running all black-cast sitcoms one night, sci-fi another, and wrestling still another night, it left little idea what the hell kind of network it is. (Though it did a great job of serving young African-American women who love The Undertaker and attend Star Trek conventions.) Today, UPN entertainment president Dawn Ostroff announced that, after extensive market research, the network had realized it was "Unconventional, ambitious and fun."

Well. Glad that's settled.

The new brand identity apparently means a lot of comedy, because UPN announced four new sitcoms and only one new drama. The drama, "Jake 2.0," concerns a government computer geek whose body is "infected" by tiny experimental robots that enhance his strength and senses and allow him to interface with computers. (Unlike the $6 Million Man, though, he doesn't make a cool doo-doo-doo sound when he runs.) UPN's had its greatest success lately with its Monday night lineup of African-American comedies, to which it's adding Eve's off-the-hizzle show, "The Opposite Sex," in which she's a fashion designer looking for love. Good to see TV continues to be concerned about the romantic challenges of really hot women.

On the network's new comedy night, Tuesday, UPN is looking to "broaden its audience," which would usually be code for "get white people to watch." In this case it isn't code, because Ostroff came right out and said it: its first new Tuesday sitcom, "All of Us" — executive produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and about a man, his girlfriend, his soon-to-be-ex-wife —tested extremely high, in her words, "with Caucasian audiences." (The upfronts are one of the few places outside a Klan or Nation of Islam meeting where you'll hear the word "Caucasian" uttered unironically anymore.)

Later on Tuesday, the comedy night gets whiter still with "Rock Me Baby," with Dan Cortese as a shock jock forced into maturity by fatherhood. And at 9:30, it gets as white as humanly possible with "The Mullets," the name of which alone inspired the biggest laughs of anything so far this upfront. From two ex-"Simpsons" producers, it's about two brothers with a roofing business, huge poofy mullet haircuts and half a brain between them. Unfortunately, the clips themselves didn't incite the laughs the title did, but that won't keep me from checking it out come fall. You say you can't found a sitcom on a haircut alone? Tell that to Jennifer Aniston.


There has been, as befits these nervous times, an air of anxiety over the upfronts in New York. At each theater, before the networks' gala schedule announcements to advertisers, there have been ID checks, bag searches and long lines. (At NBC's Monday show, security at the Met opera house very nearly did not let this writer carry in his laptop, even as women with handbags large enough to blow up a city block sashayed past the checkpoints.) And as Fox began its presentation at Manhattan's City Center, a voice over the sound system announced the words that, in this day and age, strike dread into the heart of anyone...

"Ladies and gentlemen.... Ryan Seacrest!"

When the rest of the TV networks have been disparaging reality TV this week, they've really been disparaging Fox, which has come from the ratings basement on the strength of "Joe Millionaire" and "American Idol." Fox, obviously, is not afraid to put reality front and center. Seacrest bragged about “Idol's” ratings, then introduced "Idol 2" finalists Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, live by satellite from Los Angeles.

Ruben and Clay each belted out a signature song ("Just the Way You Are" and "Unchained Melody," respectively), then joined last year's final two, Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, who appeared live on stage, for "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Nice tunes, guys, but — live on satellite? The point of reality TV, Fox, is that you *own* the contestants' asses. Tired, schmired — they can damn well fly out and dance *in person* for the moneymen!

Even Fox, however, seemed a bit defensive about its reality success, speaking to a crowd of advertisers, who have resisted paying top dollar for reality shows because their ratings are unpredictable and they turn off some audiences. Fox TV president Sandy Grushow noted that reality shows had allowed the network to achieve several goals advertisers had asked of it, including drawing more young and female viewers. "You wanted us to capitalize on the audience's appetite [for reality], but not rely on it," he said. In other words, "We got you your damn eyeballs! Quit whining!"

Fox programming chief Gail Berman did, however, place a lot more emphasis on comedies and dramas in the schedule announcement. On the drama side, "Skin," from ubiquitous producer Jerry Bruckheimer, seems to have the elements one needs for success in TV, or, really, in life: love, conflict and porn. In this self-styled Romeo-and-Juliet story, the son of a district attorney falls in love with the daughter of the adult-entertainment czar his dad is prosecuting. "Wonderfalls," like CBS's "Joan of Arcadia," is about a young woman receiving mysterious messages, except that instead of having God talk to her, she chats with inanimate objects — the eagle on the back of a quarter, the tchotchkes in the souvenir shop she works in. It doesn't quite have God's star quality, but it also seems to have more of a fresh look and sense of humor.

On Thursday — the Get Killed by "Friends/Survivor/CSI" timeslot — Fox tries new young-skewing dramas. In "Tru Calling," a young woman who works in a morgue (Eliza Dushku, who played Faith on "Buffy") discovers she can travel back in time 24 hours to prevent the untimely deaths she encounters. (It's "Groundhog Day," the action series.) And "The O.C." — which premieres over the summer — returns to "90210" territory with a youth soap about a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who moves to ritzy Newport Beach in Orange County, Calif.

It's always hard to tell from the clips at upfront whether a show will be good (though it's easier to tell a real stinker), but Fox's set is at least more original-sounding than most other networks' (and they look much better than its horrible crop this season, "Wanda at Large" excepted). "A Minute with Stan Hooper" stars Norm MacDonald — as a New York TV personality who moves to small-town Wisconsin to produce a show and finds the locals are less simple than he expects. "Luis" stars character actor Luis Guzman ("Boogie Nights") as the owner of an East Harlem donut shop; prime-time could use a few more working-class sitcoms (is a donut shop owner blue collar or powdered-sugar collar?) and it seems to have a strong voice.

Two other class-conscious sitcoms take a look at the wacky rich. In "Arrested Development," a wealthy, eccentric family gets into trouble with the SEC and starts to come apart at the seams. In the midseason "Cracking Up," a psychology student is assigned to live with a rich family, whose members turn out to be sociopaths, obsessives or just creepy. It's from Mike White, who created the fantastic 2001 "Pasadena" for Fox, and it seems basically like that soap opera's twisted-rich story rewritten as a comedy — let's hope it fares better the second time. Finally, there's "The Ortegas," a talk-show within-a-sitcom about a family that builds its son a talk-show set in back of the house. You can find the kits at Home Depot, next to the spacecraft-mission-control-room sets.

All in all, an ambitious lineup, and yet there's a reason for that advertiser nervousness: Fox's success launching these new shows depends largely on the continued success of its reality shows, which have benefited its scripted shows like "24" (which returns next year, in the same real-time format). And that depends on, for instance, "American Junior," the kid version of "American Idol," which Fox put on its fall schedule even though its summer run hasn't even premiered yet. It depends on Fox finding a way to recreate the success of "Joe Millionaire" (Mondays at 8 E.T. next fall), even though we all now know the original gimmick. (Berman said the network has a "secret plan," a la Nixon with Vietnam, to add a new twist.)

And it depends on "American Idol" staying a powerhouse, which is always iffy in the mercurial world of reality TV. At one point, Simon Cowell came onstage to critique Berman's delivery, after which they had a fake squabble and he walked offstage. "You won't be seeing me here next year," he said.

Everyone in the audience was polite enough to assume it was a joke.