Network takes aim at drama

If there is indeed a comedy resurgence at the Big Four, ABC appears well positioned to cash in on it.

Breakout hit “Modern Family” just punctuated its rookie year with a big Emmy win, but the net last season also found a pair of solid laffers in “The Middle” and “Cougar Town.” And this fall, the Alphabet net’s “Better With You” is the best-looking new comedy on any network.

The comedy gains come as ABC — which scored three monster hourlong hits in the 2004-05 season (“Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) — has struggled to find even a couple of medium-range new drama successes. And since dramas take up twice as much space on the sked as comedies, it behooves the net to land some new hit hours before “Desperate” and “Grey’s” eventually sail off into the sunset.

The Alphabet’s upcoming dramas are all over the map in terms of genre and tone, but they are superior to last year’s crop and as good collectively as those on any other network. A couple of them should be able to improve their timeslots and get to a second year.

Overall, this will be a key season for ABC, as former ABC Family prexy Paul Lee assumes the programming reins from Stephen McPherson. No net took more swings in recent years to find the next big hit, but its attempts largely failed.

The Alphabet certainly could fall to fourth place this season as NBC has improved its 10 o’clock hour and will have the fourth quarter’s No. 1 show in “Sunday Night Football.” But the battle for the bronze will likely be decided by how ABC and NBC fare with their frosh offerings.

ABC returns intact on Mondays with “Dancing With the Stars” leading into mystery drama “Castle,” which has been a modest success that has performed better than any hour behind “Dancing.” “Castle” will get new competition this fall from CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0,” but will benefit from another intriguing “Dancing” cast, which figures to funnel more than 20 million viewers into “Castle” on premiere night.

Tuesday represents a growth opportunity, as the more male-friendly “No Ordinary Family” and “Detroit 187″ — which figure to receive a good chunk of ABC’s promotion during college football — bookend the “Dancing” results show. It’s an unusual lineup without any real flow, but on such a competitive night when there’s lots of channel-flipping anyway, the net will be looking to target a specific audience each hour.

ABC knows it has put “No Ordinary Family” in a tough time period, but Tuesday at 8 has been such a black hole that gains shouldn’t be difficult. And in “Family,” the promising Michael Chiklis-fronted drama about a family that discovers it has gained superpowers, it has a show that just might be special enough to carve out an aud opposite two of TV’s hottest series: CBS vet “NCIS” (which dominates the 35-64 crowd, drawing lots of men) and Fox upstart “Glee” (which rules the 12-34 set, especially among femmes).

“Detroit 187,” the cop show whose OK pilot has been reshot to de-emphasize or remove altogether what had been an annoying documentary-style lensing, will look to build an audience in the hour where the net long aired “NYPD Blue.” It could work opposite two female-skewing dramas on the competition.

Wednesday will see “The Middle” lead off the night, followed by “Better With You,” a funny, relatable comedy about three couples within the same family that should work nicely in the slot prior to “Modern Family.” While “Middle” wouldn’t appear strong enough to open a night, it and “Better” will benefit from not having comedy competish in the 8-9 p.m. hour, as ABC’s laffers did a year ago.

“Modern Family” should explode in the fall, winning its timeslot in 18-49 and giving “Cougar Town,” which faded after a hot start, another crack at finding a larger aud. Waiting in the wings for midseason is the surprisingly appealing “Friends”-ish comedy “Happy Endings” and the needs-some-work “Mister Sunshine,” starring Matthew Perry. Finding a spot on the sked for Perry’s single-guy vehicle could be difficult, though, as the net’s Wednesday lineup is family-focused.

Wednesday 10 p.m. drama “The Whole Truth” is about as exciting as its title suggests, and figures to get lost opposite amid a sea of new legal shows in the hour; any improvement in the timeslot over last fall’s disastrous “Eastwick,” however, could buy it some time.

The net is hoping to make Thursday a destination night for women 18-49, as the new “My Generation” joins the established medical combo of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.” The melodramatic but enjoyable “Generation” could connect with its audience, but ABC would have preferred CBS had stuck with the older-skewing “Survivor” than move “The Big Bang Theory” to the 8 o’clock slot, where it should score among both men and women 18-49.

ABC has been without a good lead-in for the potent but declining “Grey’s,” and its best hope for “Generation” is that auds see the 8-10 p.m. shows as a compatible block. (Look for ABC to replay “My Generation” on Fridays at the outset of the season; and some airings on ABC Family would be smart as well.)

Friday opens with alternative series “Secret Millionaire,” which at least is something different and could surprise when it bows in October. And at 9, Dana Delany starrer “Body of Proof” reps a significant improvement in quality over the net’s recent, similar stab at the women 25-54 crime audience in the timeslot (the tedious “Women’s Murder Club” in 2007) — though it will have to fight off CBS’ “CSI: NY” and NBC’s “Dateline.”

Sunday is back intact, with “Desperate Housewives” expected to get a nice boost from the brilliant casting addition of Vanessa Williams; she should bring some new viewers (including fans of her work as evil Wilhelmina on “Ugly Betty”) even as the show continues its gradual decline and faces tougher competition from CBS’ “Undercover Boss.”

At 10, “Brothers and Sisters” appears tapped out at this point, and the hour could be a good choice in the spring for Shonda Rhimes’ midseason medical drama, “Off the Map.”

Overall, it should be an eventful season for the Alphabet.

Some have wondered why ABC, which has a rich tradition of family-friendly programming, hasn’t been able to reconnect with that part of its DNA. But after adding “Modern Family” last year, “No Ordinary Family” this fall, and promoting the topper at ABC Family, the net may have finally sharpened its vision.

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