HOLLYWOOD — The Big Six networks unveiled their fall — or rather their all-season — schedules last week, and once again hope triumphed over experience.
In most cases, most new shows will be whisked off the air quicker than an ABC Entertainment exec gets a pinkslip, so the hyperbole with which webheads introduced the newcomers is astonishing.
More astounding is the length of these upfront presentations, which ran almost to three hours in some cases and included more homages and testimonials than the drawn-out farewells to “Friends.”
“Make no mistake about it…” began many of Leslie Moonves’ pronouncements during his upbeat, NBC-bashing schtick before ad buyers at Carnegie Hall. His message: “We at CBS show across-the-board growth; everyone else is down in all categories.”
To be sure, the CBS chairman does have reason to be pumped up, since the Eye is up in all demos and getting younger by the day. It will populate its primetime sked with five Jerry Bruckheimer-produced series, including the latest “CSI” offshoot set in a dark-tinged New York.
“Don’t let anything happen to him,” Moonves said half-jokingly of his dependence on uber-producer Bruckheimer.
(As for who might become the next Bruckheimer, could it be Mel Gibson? From out of nowhere his company Icon placed three series on the skeds.)
But it was perhaps a little unfair of Moonves to illustrate with the worms from “Fear Factor” how low he says chief rival NBC has sunk: All the nets are readying ranks of reality shows to slot into skeds at the first sign of a faltering scripted soldier.
The Peacock’s boxing hybrid “The Contender” has already thrust its way to media prominence — even exec producer Sylvestor Stallone gladhanded with Madison Ave. types — but the funniest clip was from the ill-named “Wife Swap” on ABC.
Who knew people had such dirty houses, or that switching dishwater moms could be so tantalizing? Steve McPherson, who is 29 days into his new job as head of ABC Entertainment, said, apparently seriously: “It speaks to the family and fits perfectly in the ABC brand.” Wait ’til the FCC takes note.
In stark contrast to the brassy CBS and NBC presentations, ABC suits came across as contrite, promising to improve the fortunes of the flagging Alphabet and unveiling 10 new shows.
The WB, which has also slipped in the ratings, was also subdued. Its buzzworthiest show: “Jack and Bobby,” which one pundit described as “Smallville” meets “West Wing.”
In keeping with its traditions, the Peacock took the wraps off its much ballyhooed “Friends” spinoff “Joey,” screening the entire pilot and eliciting a fair number of laughs. How the dimmest of the “Friends’ can be expected to carry an entire season without the quick-witted repartee of the original sitcom is, however, a mystery.
The net also treated us to an excruciating video encounter with Roy Horn and Siegfried Hischbacher promoting the new animated series “Father of the Pride,” which tells the story of a pride of lions working on the duo’s now-defunct Las Vegas show. NBC’s clip of Hischbacher and Horn — who is able to talk but is still recovering from last year’s attack by a lion — was downright creepy.
Among ABC’s hopefuls were the most high-concept projects — a J.J. Abrams drama called “Lost,” which could be a “Survivor” meets “X Files” or could degenerate into second-rate Stephen King, and an “American Beauty”-inspired satirical drama called “Desperate Housewives,” which was similarly ambitious if differently targeted.
And despite not having any footage as yet, the offshoot of “The Practice,” which is called “Fleet Street” but has nothing to do with British tabloids, is getting buzz for James Spader’s wacky performance as morally ambiguous lawyer Alan Shore.
During the week’s presentations, it was actually ABC latenight host Jimmy Kimmel who effectively summed up the differences among the Big Four in a hilarious riff:
“If this were high school,” Kimmel said, “NBC would be the rich kid whose dad bought them a BMW. CBS would be the straight-A student who’s going to Stanford. Fox would be the jock who’s not too smart but still gets the chicks. And we’re (ABC) the fat kids who eat paste.”
To some extent, he’s right: The nets, unlike the film studios that are nowadays largely indistinguishable from one another, do have distinctive personalities. Certain shows just seem to work better on a particular net — bimbos do better on ABC, blue humor on Fox — and diverging from that norm can be risky.
That’s worth remembering when the casualties start to mount in the fall.