Network heats up new reality shows

Having dramatically improved its regular-season performance, ABC is now setting its sights on summer.

The Alphabet web isn’t waiting until the end of the season to launch its aggressive warm-month push, preeming the six-episode gamer “National Bingo Night” on Friday, May 18. Promos are set to start airing next week.

That will be followed by a steady stream of new product all summer, including celebrity impersonator competish “The Next Big Thing,” the second season of “American Inventor” and the Shaquille O’Neal-hosted “Shaq’s Big Fat Challenge.”

“We wanted to come in strong right off of the May sweep,” said ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson. “With all of our finales, there’s so much going on in May for us that to not use that as a platform would be crazy.”

The Alphabet didn’t have much luck with the warmer months last year, when it waited until mid-summer to trot out its bigger guns, including talent competish “The One: Making of a Music Star” and the docusoap “One Ocean View.” All of those shows quickly flopped.

What’s more, one of ABC’s biggest attempts at a summer player, “Buy It Now,” never made it to air. (A deal with eBay, which was to be an integral part of the show, couldn’t be reached.)

That left the net with a smaller base of viewers to whom it could promote its fall series.

“We didn’t have the best strategy last year,” said McPherson. “And we got hampered by tough circumstances like eBay.”

The net managed to recover and launched several shows last fall that are already set to return next season — including “Ugly Betty,” “Brothers & Sisters” and “Men in Trees” — all while successfully moving “Grey’s Anatomy” to a tougher Thursday slot.

But this summer, ABC plans to get into the game faster, and with a crop of blue-sky reality entries that McPherson said fit inside the Alphabet net’s reality brand (“Dancing with the Stars,” “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”). The shows, he said, also reflect what viewers prefer in the summer.

“There’s a different temperament in the summer,” McPherson said. “I wouldn’t take a dark procedural and put it there. I’m not sure that’s what audiences are craving this time of year.”

The goal is to find another hit along the lines of “Stars,” which performed so well for ABC in summer 2005 that it was promoted to twice-a-year cycles in the regular season.

“These shows appeal to a broad range of people,” McPherson said.

“National Bingo Night,” he noted, is “a simple but universal concept. This is going to be a game that people can vote on and play at home.”

ABC will follow with eight episodes of “Next Best Thing” starting Wednesday, May 30. “This is big, broad, funny,” McPherson said.

“Ex-Wives Club,” featuring D-list “ex-wives” such as Shar Jackson and Marla Maples offering advice to new divorcees, runs for five episodes starting (tentatively) Monday, June 4.

Then there’s the return of “American Inventor,” which has been retooled to focus mostly on the auditions and now features George Foreman as a judge (Daily Variety, March 20) . Show runs for eight segs starting Wednesday, June 6.

“People sparked to the auditions,” McPherson said. Exec producer Simon Cowell “did a good job of retooling it.”

Gillette is behind “Fast Cars & Superstars,” a limited-run NASCAR-themed skein that launches Thursday, June 7 (and wraps with a one-hour finale on Saturday, June 23).

Meanwhile, ABC will go with a Fat Tuesday strategy this summer: First, “Shaq’s Big Fat Challenge” — in which the basketball star helps kids lose weight (Daily Variety, March 4) — is expected to bow on Tuesday, June 26, at 9 p.m. “Shaq” will get a heavy promo push during ABC’s airing of the NBA Finals.

Once the six episodes of “Shaq” runs out, net will likely air an untitled weight-loss skein in the slot starting Aug. 7. The non-elimination show follows a group of people who lose weight together by walking across the country (starting at the Boston Marathon) and take on challenges along the way.

Net also has the reality entries “Set for Life” and “Just for Laughs” on tap for later in the summer; Oprah Winfrey reality entry “The Big Give” (Daily Variety, Dec. 14) could also air before next fall. Net will burn off episodes of drama “Traveler” starting May 30 at 10 p.m.

On the specials tip, ABC has the national “Spelling Bee” on May 31, as well as the Alma Awards on June 5 and the Country Music Festival on July 23 (dates subject to change).

Eventually, McPherson said he’d like to tackle another scripted show in the summer — a tough order that several networks have tried in recent years, to mostly tepid results.

“Perhaps a limited-run soap opera, comedy or drama,” he said.

Meanwhile, with no major scheduling shifts expected in the vein of last fall’s Thursday-night “Grey’s Anatomy” shift, McPherson said the net will be able to focus more of its summertime marketing on this fall’s new and returning shows.

“We’re in a far better place this year,” he said. “Last year we had to make some big, aggressive changes. This year there’s more stability coming in and a structure to the schedule that works.”

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