The WB Wants Young People. ABC Will Take Anyone Who'll Have It

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The WB

The WB's upfront presentation to advertisers at Madison Square Garden opened with a performance by Lenny Kravitz, an especially apt choice given how much TV-commercial licensing of his songs has done for his career. I'm not quite sure who gets really excited anymore about Kravitz, who's less a rock star than a celebrity who does a believable rock-star impersonation. Nonetheless, among the business-suited throng packing the Garden, more than one middle-aged white ad man was doing that little baby-boomer head bob and tapping his feet to "Fly Away," to show the young associates gunning for his job that he was still down with the young kids and their musizzle.

The WB network is kind of the same way. Coming up on its 10th birthday in 2005 — that's, like, 150 in youth-culture years — once a year it shows up, bobs its head, and promises to hang on to its young audience with a new set of teen soaps and hot young bodies that it injects into its schedule like Botox.

It's been a bad ratings year for the network, which had to sit by and stew while bigger networks raided its youth niche with reality shows. In the ultimate WB indignity, it was Fox that landed last year's hot teen soap with "The O.C." Network CEO Jordan Levin flatly apologized to advertisers, in particular by practically promising to commit ritual suicide for having decided, last year, to focus on scripted rather than reality shows. "We will never make that mistake again," he pledged, mustering as much contrition as an entire administration did over the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Next season, the network will try to make up for it with several reality projects of varying degrees of dubiousness. Besides its "American Idol" spoof, "Superstar USA," which just debuted, there'll be "Studio 7," a quiz show whose contestants spend a week living together before the big game, where they'll hopefully have torrid affairs with one another just like we've always imagined those "Jeopardy" contestants to do. There's "Big Man on Campus," a college dating show a la "The Bachelor." Call it "The Bachelor's Degree." On "Wannabes," 10 actresses compete to win a starring role on... a WB show. If neither show hits, next year we'll see 10 young people competing for a job running WB programming.

The network also announced several new comedies. "Drew Carey's Green Screen" is an improv comedy show in which the scenarios acted out by the comedians are illustrated by animators. It's for everybody who loved "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" but found it too taxing on the imagination. Jeff Foxworthy, meanwhile, returns to the screen in "Blue Collar TV," a standup comedy/parody show on which he will continue to prove that redneck jokes are not offensive as long as you pay an actual Southerner to make them for you. On "Shacking Up," Fran Drescher plays a mother who shocks her 25-year-old son by moving in with her 24-year-old boyfriend. (Sorry, did you just eat?)

The biggest news of the presentation, though, may have been the increased tightening of Mark Burnett's grip on your remote control. Yesterday, Burnett was at NBC, basking in the afterglow of his hit "The Apprentice" and the excitement over his upcoming boxing show, "The Contender." Today, we learned that Burnett would have three new shows on The WB. There's "Commando Nanny," a comedy loosely based on the former special-forces soldier's experience as a nanny in L.A. (He's been taking dramatic license with other people's stories on "Survivor" for years, so fair's fair.) There's "Global Frequency," a drama about a super-secret intelligence agency that, in the network PR department's words, seeks to "prevent international politics from undermining the security of the global community," which would make a great rationalization if we ever decide to forcibly seize the UN building. And there's what The WB simply described as an "upcoming reality project," which is television-speak for "We have no idea what he's going to do, and maybe he doesn't either, but he's on a roll, so we backed up the money truck for him anyway."

Add in "Survivor," "The Restaurant" and other potential projects, and Burnett will have — I'm guesstimating here — five hundred TV shows on the air. As it is, they may have to change the name of this network from the WB to the MB, and NBC to MBC.

It wouldn't, of course, be The WB without a couple of new teen soaps. "The Mountain" follows the lives and loves of two feuding brothers running a family ski resort. It comes from McG, producer of "The O.C." and features a lot of those extreme sports that the beverage commercials tell us the young kids like nowadays. Unfortunately, because of the title, it ended up making me think of "The Valley," the fake-soap-within-a-soap on "The O.C." Finally, for all of you who ever watched a WB soap and wondered, "Gee, I wonder what these characters will look like 40 years from now?" there's "Jack and Bobby." The story of two brothers (with Christine Lahti as their mom), it twists its typical high-school stories by revealing that the older brother will become President of the U.S. in 2040, and it's interspersed with documentary-style "interviews" with actors playing historians and cabinet members.

Despite the names, the WB helpfully assures us, the show is not about John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. Thank God they cleared that up. Otherwise we might have gotten the impression that JFK was president in the future. Let it never be said that kids can't learn anything from TV.


It's cruel to wish, I know, but there's a small part of me that hopes that ABC sinks even farther in the ratings. Sure, they've already been humbled mightily since "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" flamed out a few years ago, but there must be some depth of disgrace — behind UPN! behind Pax! behind Trio! — at which the failure becomes liberating. When anything goes. When the network decides to roll the dice and unleash the weirdest crap that's ever been seen on broadcast TV, because, well, why not? A drama about the rough-and-tumble world of professional plumbing inspectors! A reality show about dogs — directed and produced by dogs! A family sitcom by the guy who just made a movie about Jesus Christ getting tortured to death!

Oh, wait, never mind — they're doing that one already. That's right, Mel Gibson is following up "The Passion" with "Savages," a new ABC sitcom about a widowed dad raising his sons alone. (Theologically speaking, I guess "The Passion" was also about a father-son relationship, so maybe it's not such a stretch.) But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before ABC executives announced their new fall schedule at the New Amsterdam theater in New York, they first had to explain to the assembled advertisers why they should have faith ABC would deliver anyone to actually watch their commercials.

The toughest lifting fell to Mike Shaw, the network's president of marketing. Valiantly, he mentioned a statistic that showed viewers watch ABC continuously for 24 minutes on average, compared with 14 minutes for cable. (New slogan: "ABC: still bigger than Outdoor Living Network!") And he noted the number of ABC programs that are not repeats, including its sports events, which, he said, are "first-run, 100 percent of the time." ("ABC: Our football games are never reruns!")

The executives also had to pledge their confidence in ABC's management, even though given the company's recent turbulent history, nobody can say with confidence what that management will be in another month or so. Stephen McPherson, ABC's new entertainment president after a management shakeup about a month ago, introduced the lineup, wisely, without dwelling on the problems of the past but rather saying that the important thing was the programs to air in the "months and years ahead." (Years! Isn't that cute!) Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, doing a monologue in the middle of the upfront, joked that the reason ABC passed on the opportunity to air "The Apprentice" was that "it hit too close to home... 'You're fired! You're fired!'"

First, McPherson introduced ABC's reality programming, one of the few bright spots on ABc's lineup lately. The segment began with a syrupy clip reel about ABC's returning reality shows, making the case that The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover were a benevolent entity, like UNICEF: "They make you laugh, make you cry, and make a difference." Joining the schedule next year is "Wife Swap," in which mothers from two different households change homes for a week to live with each others' families. Scenes from the pilot, in which a crunchy vegetarian from California swapped with a neat freak from New Jersey, got a lot of laughs. Still, you have to be anxious about a show that defines women entirely in terms of their homemaking. I mean, do we really want reality TV to drag women back to the 1950s? Oh, wait — "The Bachelor" already took care of that. Carry on, then! Meanwhile, on "The Benefactor," billionaire Mark Cuban is giving away a million dollars to the average American who can best help him achieve his humanitarian goal: stealing publicity from Donald Trump.

Aside from "Savages," ABC picked up only one other sitcom, "Rodney," a star vehicle for Rodney Carrington — a standup comic who you may not have known was famous — about a man who wants to be a standup comic. But the network made up for it with dramas, planning so many new ones that I am forced to employ bullet points:

  • "Desperate Housewives," a dark-humored soap about a clique of suburban woman and their friend who kills herself but manages, "American Beauty"-style, to narrate the show

  • "Eyes," about a high-priced private-eye outfit

  • "Blind Justice," from Steven Bochco, about a blind cop. (Surprisingly, the trailer actually looked better than it's parodically high-concept idea and title — but then, that's not that high a bar.)

  • "The Practice: Fleet Street," which follows James Spader's character into the world of civil law. Think that can't be as scary as criminal practice? Think again: it costars William Shatner.

  • "Grey's Anatomy," about young female medical interns, in which someone, shockingly, is named Grey

  • "Life As We Know It," a show about three teenage boys who, shockingly, think mainly about sex

  • "Lost," from "Alias" creator J. J. Abrams, in which a plane crash-lands on an island, leaving the survivors stranded and beset by mysterious, hostile beings who inhabit the jungle. From the clips we saw here, next time you fly, sit next to the most attractive young person on the plane — if there's a crash, it seems, he or she is going to live.

    Dramas always tend to preview better than sitcoms, so it's hard to say what might be good or bad here — although "Housewives," "Life As We Know It" and "Lost" all inspired curiosity. In other news, "NYPD Blue" ends after next season, having apparently run out of bad things to make happen to Sipowicz. Oprah Winfrey is producing an ABC movie of Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," starring Halle Berry. Jessica Simpson, whose sitcom pilot got rejected by ABC, has instead signed a deal to do variety specials for two years, for at least one month of which she will still be famous. And "Alias" fans, note — you'll have to wait until midseason, when "Desperate Housewives" ends its run, to get your next fix of Sydney Bristow.

    Don't worry, though. We're confident there will still be an ABC television network by then. We think.

    Tomorrow: CBS