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ABC’s escaping reality

Net shifts focus to scripted fare

Having overdosed on reality skeins this spring — and tripped up the network’s ratings recovery in the process — ABC execs say the net has curbed its alternative habit once and for all.

Speaking to reporters Monday at the Alphabet web’s portion of the Television Critics Assn. press tour, ABC execs stressed a renewed focus on scripted over nonscripted fare. To that end, ABC has picked up another scripted drama for midseason, an “Upstairs, Downstairs” riff on life on New York City’s Upper West Side from “Party of Five” creators Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman.

ABC Entertainment TV Group chair Lloyd Braun and entertainment prexy Susan Lyne said they had employed a deliberate strategy to cut back on reality series starting this summer and promised not to rely on the shows as filler programming come midseason.

“We’ve promised each other that we’re going to be very militant with one another to exercise restraint and patience throughout the year, because it’s easy to think you have something in your pocket that’s a quick fix,” Braun said.

“Hopefully a year from now you’ll be able to say, ‘You know what? You guys lived up to that promise.’ ”

ABC’s reality fixation last spring wasn’t the first time the net got caught up in the nonscripted craze to detrimental effects. Net is still smarting from an over-reliance on once-hot gamer “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” which burned out before ABC had a chance to develop new series.

Braun and Lyne admitted some of the ratings gains they achieved last fall with fare such as “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” and “The George Lopez Show” were lost in midseason, when nonscripted entries like “Are You Hot?” and “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” took up much of the network’s schedule.

Muddling the message

While some reality fare, such as “Hot,” scored solid ratings, Alphabet execs felt the flood of nonfiction muddled the net’s message to viewers, critics and advertisers.

This time around, the execs say they’re sticking with just two reality timeslots: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9 p.m. (ABC doesn’t consider nonscripted skein “America’s Funniest Home Videos” a reality show.)

“I think we’ll have a good fall again — and we’re not going to give any of that back this time,” Braun said.

As for the new Keyser/Lippman project, even before a pilot has been shot, the Alphabet has ordered six episodes of the show, which comes from Warner Bros. TV and the Tannenbaum Co.

The untitled project joins three more scripted skeins ready for midseason, including drama “Line of Fire,” Stephen King entry “Kingdom Hospital” and laffer “The Big House.”

Dramatic boost

“We now have three scripted dramas in backup; last year we didn’t have any,” Braun said, noting midseason shows such as “Miracles” and “Veritas” were already assigned Monday timeslots before last season began.

“We should have had more,” he said. “But we’ve really tried to learn from that. We’re going to have a very steady diet of scripted original programming continuing throughout May sweeps.”

The Keyser/Lippman project revolves around an upper-crust family as seen through the eyes of their nannies, assistants and housekeepers. Keyser and Lippman will exec produce, along with Eric and Kim Tannenbaum.

“When we talked with Susan Lyne, what we agreed was, with this glut of reality shows, what comes in close second is the sheer number of procedural shows,” Lippman said. “We’re looking to do a show that appeals to the kind of audience that used to come to the TV set on Friday and Saturday nights, looking for a continuing drama as opposed to a murder investigation. There was a time when, women especially, people came to TV for emotional stories.”

Project is similar in theme to another ABC pilot from last spring, “111 Gramercy Park,” which also came from Warner Bros. TV and Tannenbaum Co., and had an “Upstairs, Downstairs” theme and a New York setting.

“It’s a very old, classic dramatic idea that always seems to work,” Keyser said.

But network and studio execs stressed that the similarities ended there. Bob Brush, creator of “Gramercy Park,” was offered a chance to remain involved with the new project, but the exec producer has instead taken over as showrunner on another ABC drama, “Karen Sisco.”

Keyser and Lippman exec produced the pilot “No Place Like Home” for Fox this spring. But the show, which also explored issues of family and social class, was not ordered to series.

Meanwhile, also at the ABC press tour:

  • In another sign ABC execs are trying not to be too greedy with reality, the previously announced four-hour event detailing the wedding of “Bachelorette” star Trista Rehn will air in late November or early December, Lyne said. While a potentially big ratings draw like the nuptials might normally be saved for a sweeps period, Alphabet execs wanted to have a “Bachelor”-related program to fill the gap between the end of this fall’s new “Bachelor” installment and January’s expected return of “The Bachelorette.”

  • Sharon Stone will appear in a three-episode arc of “The Practice” this fall, Lyne confirmed (Daily Variety, June 18). Stone’s stint will be officially announced by exec producer David E. Kelley today, as will the casting of Rhona Mitra (Daily Variety, June 12). ABC had already confirmed the addition of James Spader to the skein, which has moved back to Sundays at 10 p.m. after a disastrous outing on Mondays.

Braun admitted that additions such as Spader and Stone don’t come cheap and said ABC will be paying more for “The Practice” than it had planned when the net inked a new license deal with 20th Century Fox TV and Kelley in May (though still far less than it had been paying for the skein last season).

Mea culpa

Braun also acknowledged the network may have made a mistake in moving the drama to Monday nights last season — and that the cast changes implemented by Kelley were “more significant” than ABC had expected.

“We recognize we did some harm to ‘The Practice,’ and there are a lot of viewers who are not happy the show moved,” he said. “We were very surprised Mondays at 9 when ‘The Practice’ didn’t do better than it did, against a couple of other shows that we thought it would perform well against.”

  • Braun said “Jimmy Kimmel Live” will make it to its one-year anniversary next January, a milestone most recent latenight gabfests have failed to reach.

  • Comedian Will Sasso (“MadTV”) has joined the cast of “Less Than Perfect,” while “Seinfeld” alum Patrick Warburton will appear as a recurring guest star.

Sasso will play next-door neighbor to Claude (Sara Rue), while Warburton will appear in a multi-episode arc as an opinionated on-air commentator.

  • Former “NYPD Blue” star Kim Delaney will visit the precinct in a four-episode story arc.

  • No word yet on rollout dates for the net’s fall sked, but execs said Thursday night drama “Threat Matrix” will be first out of the box.

  • Ethan Embry will no longer be a regular on the revamped “L.A. Dragnet.”

“He’ll be recurring,” Lyne said, although ABC press materials detailing the skein don’t mention Embry.

Christina Chang, who appeared in Dick Wolf’s NBC journo drama “Deadline,” is joining the show as politically minded assistant D.A. Sandy Chang, while Desmond Harrington is coming on board as Dexter McCarron, a hot-headed detective overseen by Ed O’Neill’s newly upped Lt. Joe Friday. Also, Rosalyn Sanchez (“Rush Hour 2”) has joined the show as Lisa Macias, an ex-military type now working as a cop.

  • Lyne said it’s still possible ABC could tweak its sked before the fall starts, admitting there’s not much apparent flow between the family-oriented “My Wife and Kids” and the more broad-based (and tentatively titled) “It’s All Relative.”

Compared with last year, the ABC execs said they feel much more bullish heading into fall.

“We need a little luck and a lot of good old-fashioned marketing,” Lyne said. “If that happens, we could make real progress this season.”

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