ABC is prepping an extreme midweek makeover, setting its sights on Tuesday and Wednesday and hoping to improve its outlook in the 2007-08 season with a slew of new series.
The Alphabet watched its fortunes improve after a tough winter and is currently the leader on the non-“American Idol” nights of Sunday, Monday and Thursday. With those nights humming along, ABC felt it could take some risks the rest of the week.
“Tuesday and Wednesday are for us the big focus,” ABC Entertainment prexy Stephen McPherson told reporters Tuesday, several hours before the net unveiled its new sked to advertisers at Avery Fisher Hall. “In the fall, when ‘Dancing With the Stars’ was on (those nights), we were doing really well. But when it came off, we had a big hole.”
ABC served up its usual share of self-deprecating barbs during its presentation. And as usual, the best lines were delivered by ABC’s latenight snarkmeister, Jimmy Kimmel, who homed in on a comment made early on in the presentation by ad sales chief Mike Shaw about how ABC viewers tend to watch more commercials.
“We have the laziest viewers. They can’t even be bothered to hit the fast-forward button on their TiVo.” Another Kimmel zinger that got a big reaction: “Rosie O’Donnell’s leaving the ABC family to declare her eligibility for the NFL draft.”
Kimmel opened his bit with a dig at one of ABC’s flops from the season that wraps next week.
“Last year we promised you a show starring Mick Jagger — you know we were kidding, right?” he said referring to “Knights of Prosperity,” originally dubbed “Let’s Rob Mick Jagger.”
ABC presentations of the past few years have been highlighted by a show-stopping song-and-dance number. Last year, McPherson did the honors with one of the hoofers from “Dancing With the Stars.” This year the cast of frosh hit “Ugly Betty” did a number based on the “Chorus Line” fave “One,” with lyrics altered to pay tribute to the show’s lead character.
Getting down to business, McPherson emphasized during the presentation, and in his remarks earlier to reporters, that he is bullish on Wednesday in particular. The Alphabet net is taking a gamble by scheduling three new shows on the night now that it plans to hold back its erstwhile Wednesday anchor “Lost” for a 2008 start to accommodate its shortened, 16-seg season and probably in an earlier timeslot.
McPherson promised to put a ton of marketing muscle behind Wednesday. The centerpiece of the night in the fall will be “Private Practice,” the “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff that will air in the tentpole 9 p.m. position — smack against one of NBC’s new shows, “Bionic Woman.” So far, Wednesday looks to be anyone’s game, with NBC launching two dramas on the night as well.
ABC hopes that the spinoff, with its pre-sold “Grey’s Anatomy” pedigree, can help bring tune-in buzz at 8 p.m. to “Pushing Daisies” and strong coattails for Peter Krause starrer “Dirty Sexy Money” to ride at 10.
McPherson admitted during his morning newser that the “Private Practice” pilot had some creative problems — as evidenced by the tough critical response it received as an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” earlier this month. Still, the seg posted huge Nielsen numbers, and McPherson said he believes the skein will hit its stride after a few tweaks.
On Tuesday, ABC will take another stab at comedy, airing the much-discussed “Cavemen” (the sitcom take on those Geico commercials) at 8 p.m., followed by the laffer “Carpoolers” at 8:30. Those shows lead into the “Dancing With the Stars” results show at 9.
“The good news about comedy is it’s been broken for a couple of years, and people are now taking real chances,” McPherson said. “That’s what happened to us. There’s a lot of chances we’re taking, from ‘Carpoolers’ to ‘Cavemen.’ ”
McPherson pointed out that “Cavemen” has already stirred up quite a bit of interest given its unusual concept and even more unusual commercial-to-series route to primetime.
“If we were just doing a sketch about cavemen, it wouldn’t work at all,” McPherson said. “But the guys came in with a pitch that looks through an odd lens at racial relationships and minorities.”
McPherson said the show is able to “offend everyone while offending no one except the cavemen themselves.” Geico will temporarily pull its cavemen-themed ads while “Cavemen” launches but plans to reinstate them later.
“There will be coordination with Geico, so there isn’t confusion,” said McPherson, who admitted that marketing the show to differentiate it from the ads will be a challenge. “At this point, it’s just a rights agreement (with Geico), but we may collaborate with some sort of product integration (later on).”
Also Tuesday night, “Boston Legal” returns at 10. But in a sign that ABC’s schedule is already pretty flexible, there was talk that the net may decide instead to premiere “Cashmere Mafia” in the 10 p.m. slot behind the “Dancing” results show, rather than wait until midseason. (“Mafia” is currently on the boards to take over the “Dancing” results slot on Tuesdays.)
Net may also choose to wait several weeks before it bows its Friday night lineup (“Men in Trees” and “Women’s Murder Club”) and instead avoid the early-season crunch by airing repeats of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” on the night.
And “Sam I Am” won’t bow until later in the fall, as “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Bachelor” could combine to occupy the entire night for a few weeks.
Staggering its fall rollout could help counter the industry carping that ABC is attempting to launch too many shows — eight in the fall alone.
“We feel we have the assets to launch a couple of shows on their own, and a launching pad for others,” McPherson said.
And ABC has made a specialty of late in launching hourlong dramas, which gives some ad buyers confidence that a few of the new dramas may stick. “Overall, the fact they still have ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ‘Grey’s’ and ‘Lost’ coming back — I think it’s a pretty strong lineup,” said Brad Adgate, VP of broadcast negotiations for Horizon Media.
Scoring the best launching pad in ABC’s arsenal is “Big Shots,” which is getting a big shot — the plum position behind megahit “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Beyond that move, however, ABC’s signature Thursday and Sunday lineups remain the same. That’s in stark contrast to last year, when the Alphabet moved “Grey’s Anatomy” to Thursday. Net resisted making another big move this year.
The success last year of that move, along with that of frosh entries “Ugly Betty,” “Brothers & Sisters” and even “Men in Trees” — compared with the disappointing perf of darker shows like “The Nine” — convinced the net to keep its focus more on lighter tones.
” ‘The Nine’ and ‘Daybreak’ were incredibly well produced, but people didn’t show up for those shows,” McPherson said. “I look at the three breakout shows from last year, ‘Heroes,’ ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘Brothers & Sisters,’ and all offer escapism in different ways… We felt there may be a tonal shift in the viewer right now.”
The move away from shows like “The Nine” has also accelerated the trend toward female-skewing dramas, media buyers noted.
“Men have vanished with the disappearance of (‘Monday Night Football’), and I think they have vanished as a targeting strategy as well,” said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming at Carat USA. “Lost” is “probably their only male-skewing show.”
Meanwhile, McPherson said ABC wouldn’t follow NBC’s plan of picking up as many episodes as possible of its hit shows, arguing that nets should “be careful not to push it too much.”
“There’s a limited number that can be done in order to keep the quality up,” McPherson said.
Other midseason players include the unscripted skein “Oprah’s Big Give,” as well as hourlong “Eli Stone” and half-hour “Miss/Guided.” Reality staples “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” also will return.
ABC also gave 13-episode orders to “Notes From the Underbelly” and “October Road,” which are expected to play Monday nights (along with “Sam I Am”) in the winter.
(Michael Learmonth in New York contributed to this report.)