Gen X Marks The Spot

The relentless pursuit of a hip adult audience is the driving force behind this year’s development season, replete with dramas full of urban grit and sci-fi excursions into cyberspace as well as sitcoms mimicking the cosmopolitan espresso-bar chic of “Frasier” or “Friends.”

Underlying the whole process is a reliance on star power as long as those marquee names fall in and will appeal to the desirable 18-49 age demographic.

“Everybody is competing in the same demo derby,” says Fox Entertainment Group president John Matoian, overseeing his first development season in that capacity. “Do we want to hold on to our traditional core 18-34 audience? Of course. Are we trying to build on it in our development and broaden our 18-49 demos, as we already made progress in doing this season? Absolutely.”

Listening to CBS Entertainment president Peter Tortorici – who presides over an older-skewing lineup that’s currently fourth in the 18-49 bracket – you hear the flip side. “Our target is still to be number one in the 25-54 demo,” says Tortorici. “But we’d like to be number one with the 18-54 demo as well.”

What’s happening is a convergence of network programming strategies. Having watched the resurgence this season at NBC driven by such sophisticated adult sitcoms as “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld” as well as urban dramas “ER” and “Law & Order” – rival webs are saying “me too.”

NBC, meanwhile, has characterized CBS and Fox as late-comers to the game, which it characterizes as a two-tiered race demographically, between the Peacock and the key demo leader, ABC.

According to entertainment president Warren Littlefield, NBC plans to continue making aggressive scheduling moves along the lines of last year’s stunning “Frasier” shift, opening another night of “Must See TV” to complement Tuesday and Thursday.

Possibilities making the rounds include shifting “seaQuest DSV” to Wednesday from Sunday or spotlighting comedies on Friday, opening up a new younger skewing night.

NBC also has the potential now to offer promising timeslots to newcomers behind shows like “Frasier” and “Wings” on Tuesday in addition to its Thursday lineup. “The point is we do have a number of building blocks,” Littlefield says. “I think we’re in a position of momentum.”

He adds that there are no sacred cows in terms of relocating shows, if necessary, to open new programming fronts and attack perceived opportunities. After having tied up timeslots after “The Cosby Show” and “Cheers” for years, Littlefield stresses that “nothing is in stone. The Holy Grail of t h e network is to control your time periods.”

ABC, meanwhile, is attempting to take a page from NBC’s playbook in one respect by developing more adult comedies and playing them at earlier hours, as the Peacock web has done with “Wings” and “Mad About You.”

One scenario, in fact, has ABC situating “Ellen” and “Roseanne” at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, with “Home Improvement” and “Grace Under Fire” anchoring those nights at 9 o’clock – a shift that would create openings for hammocked shows at 8:30 and 9:30 each night.

Star comics

ABC Entertainment prexy Ted Harbert says another new aspect of the web’s development this year is that most of its comedies have stars attached, ranging from a major commitment to former “Who’s the Boss?” star Tony Danza to standup comics such as Drew Carey and John Mendoza, both of whom struck out Nielsen-wise last year in NBC sitcoms.

Other comedies will star Meredith Baxter, Terry Bradshaw, John Lithgow, Timothy Busfield, Marie Osmond and Betty White, comic Jeff Foxworthy, Tea Leoni and Steve Landesberg.

Harbert adds that ABC has tried to avoid becoming a victim of its success, working hard to dispel a popular notion last season – that there are no opportunities for new shows on its schedule – which may have kept suppliers away a year ago. That case has been helped this year by the absence of any clear hits from its ’94-’95 development class.

At CBS, there’s a keen awareness of the ABC model that can be traced to its new Broadcast Group president, Peter Lund. “Look at where a lot of ABC’s programming strength has come from,” says exec VP of sales Joe Abruzzese. “ABC has always programmed to its stations. Remember, Peter (Lund) watches over our stations, and I think you see that represented in where we are heading with our development.”

With such projects as Darren Star’s “Central Park West,” a Gotham spin on “Melrose Place,” and “Clarissa,” about an 18-year-old girl who comes to Manhattan to find fame as a writer, it’s clear the Eye web is headed in a similar direction.

Dog and pony

CBS underlined that strategy last week during a glitzy presentation to advertisers. Delivered from the “Late Show with David Letterman” set in the Ed Sullivan Theater, it was long on MTV pyrotechnics and short on “Murder, She Wrote” geriatrics.

“Every year CBS promises us it will get younger and hipper, but they don’t deliver,” says Aaron Cohen, senior VP of NW Ayer. “But you look at what they’re working on – in the presentation we didn’t see one old face – this time around it appears they really mean it.”

There is a downside, however, to CBS’ development aggressiveness. Studio execs say CBS has extended too many big-ticket deals to talent – including a 22-episode commitment to Don Johnson’s new drama and 13-episode buys on several projects, such as those from producers Darren Star and Larry Levin – which could leave the network shelling out plenty of penalty payments on passed-on pilots in the spring.

In addition, CBS has a shortage of existing hits to use as the platforms to introduce new shows, meaning many of its series will have to be self-starters – a dicey proposition in the current primetime landscape.

At Fox, the network has been sending out the message that it’s going more upmarket. Matoian has let it be known he wants less raunch – a criticism of last fall’s short-lived comedies “Wild Oats” and “Hardball” – and more genteel development. “Look, we’re not saying no more ‘Married… With Childrens.’ But if that’s the type of comedy you’re going to do, you better do it as well as ‘ Married… With Children,'” he says.

Upscale

“However, if you look at our overall comedy development, I think you see us going for more sophistication and intelligence than we may have in the past,” he says. “‘ The Simpsons’ is a good model. I don’t believe a young audience is in search of the stupid. You raise the bar and do it well, and the audience will rise to that level.”

As the programming strategies of the networks converge, a new cautiousness seeps into the development process. From Disney to Universal, studio brass are talking about “selective development,” looking to fill specific slots, rather than play a numbers game.

Producers talk openly about holding back projects for midseason, shying away from the traditional pilot frenzy as a way of increasing their odds of getting on the schedule. Meanwhile, complaints about the expense of the whole process are louder than ever.

“You can’t afford to be anything but selective,” says Universal TV prexy Tom Thayer. “Look at the economics. Production costs have gone up and the potential for backend sales, whether it’s foreign or domestic, has dropped dramatically.

“Meanwhile, licensing fees are pretty much the same place they’ve been for five years. We’ve walked away from deals. But there are enough producers out there who are willing to play by the outdated rules that the networks don’t really have to change.”

Welcome upstarts

Indeed, the networks have benefited from upstarts like Rysher Entertainment and Robert Halmi’s Hallmark Entertainment that want in to the primetime series game.

“We’ve definitely benefited from independents wanting to develop calling-card series,” Matoian says. “A show like ‘VR-5,’ which Rysher is doing, is tremendously expensive to produce, or something like ‘White Dwarf,’ which Halmi is developing for us with Francis Ford Coppola, looks incredible, to no small degree because Halmi is a showman and willing to spend the money to get those results.”

The pilot process also continues to create strange bedfellows, with ABC Prods, again producing pilots for CBS and Fox Broadcasting (having previously sold series to both networks) and CBS Entertainment Prods, selling its first project outside the Eye web, an NBC sitcom.

In addition, 20th Century Fox TV continues to do business with all the webs while upping its role as a supplier to sister Fox TV division Fox Broadcasting. Ditto for Warner Bros. TV and Paramount Network TV, despite launching their own fledgling netlets.

With well over 100 projects in the works and everyone targeting the younger audience, an emphasis on similarly themed youth-oriented ensemble comedies and distinctive dramas isn’t surprising. Still, NBC’s Littlefield cautions that there’s a big difference between concept and execution.

“The twentysomething wannabes seem to be all over,” he says, “but for every ‘Friends,’ there are many, many, many ‘Wild Oats.'”

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