Upfronts: Grading the network presentations

Lowry: CBS revels in stability, leads the curve

The major networks and a few cable upstarts unveiled their fall schedules this week, and it’s a tough call which commodity was in greater supply — new sitcoms, or hyperbolic claims that (fortunately) weren’t subjected to formal vetting for accuracy.

Snap judgments based on preview clips are never ideal, but one can derive a few general conclusions about a network’s development and overall strategy based on these presentations, with the disclaimer early enthusiasm can quickly evaporate, and one unexpected hit can make beleaguered gangs that couldn’t shoot straight suddenly look like programming geniuses.

Pending full examination of the pilots, then, here are preliminary grades:

CBS: Reveling in its stability, CBS will introduce just four new programs in the fall — all in timeslots where they have a reasonable shot at working. That includes the period mob drama “Vegas,” starring Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis — a rare Eye network series with the potential for “The Good Wife”-like critical acclaim. With “Two and a Half Men” joining the Thursday lineup, CBS solidifies its hold on one of TV’s most important nights, sales-wise. Mostly, though, the Eye network benefits from the chaotic movement of its broadcast competitors — calmly treading water while others thrash about trying to stay afloat. A-

CW: All five new dramas look pretty good — especially the midseason thriller “Cult” — and the three fall newbies are each cleverly paired with compatible hours. Yet what CW prez Mark Pedowitz called “a transformative year” also demands the netlet start making some real noise, or that “OMFG!” abbreviation is going to apply to more than just its outgoing drama “Gossip Girl.” B

ABC: The Alphabet network had big shoes to fill in charting its post-“Desperate Housewives” future and unveiled one of the upfronts’ shrewdest scheduling moves by giving that key Sunday slot to its rookie drama “Revenge.” That said, its development was a tale of two genres, with promising dramas (especially “Last Resort”) while the comedies elicited blank stares — particularly “The Neighbors,” which inexplicably commanded the net’s coveted “Modern Family”-adjacent acreage. B-

NBC: NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt did all he could to tout momentum and establishing a “cohesive schedule with flow,” but those gains rest almost entirely on one show, “The Voice.” Having discarded concerns about over-taxing its golden goose, NBC will offer three hours of “The Voice” in the fall, creating the prospect of a stronger lead-in for new shows Monday and Tuesday. That said, NBC’s decision to leave a fading Thursday unchanged — other than sliding the low-rated newsmag “Rock Center” into the 10 p.m. hour “ER” once dominated — almost looks like an act of capitulation. C

Fox: Why build an entire presentation around “American Idol,” and Ryan Seacrest, when the show’s ratings have flagged and the host seems terribly overexposed? Beyond that, Fox spent most of its time pushing a Tuesday comedy block of questionable strength. More generally, Fox experienced a bit of a hangover from last year’s upfront, given all the heady hopes surrounding “New Girl,” “X Factor” and “Terra Nova,” the last of which went the way of the dinosaurs. C

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Patrick Whitesell and Ari Emanuel WME

    Endeavor Targets Sept. 27 for Stock Debut, IPO Video Tells Company's Origin Story

    After years of preparation, Endeavor is set to make its formal Wall Street debut on Sept. 27, when its stock will begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Endeavor has targeted Sept. 26 for the final pricing of its shares. The stock will trade publicly the following day. Earlier this week, Endeavor said its [...]


    TV Review: 'A Little Late with Lilly Singh'

    Lilly Singh is well aware of her unique place in late night. After kicking off her first episode with a rap dedicated to the fact that she is not, unlike every other network late-night host, a straight white man, Singh walks out onto her own stage and addresses it with her audience directly. “I get [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Peter Coyote Riffs on 'Country Music' and How He Admires and Challenges Ken Burns

    Though an instantly recognizable face from films such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “A Walk to Remember” and “Erin Brockovich,” it is Peter Coyote’s voice — a coolly authoritative baritone with a Zen master’s holy roll — that has endeared him to documentary lovers and makers. Alrhough director-writer Alex Gibney used Coyote’s wisened narration for “Enron: [...]


    Emmys 2019: Inside All the Hottest Pre-Parties

    It’s (Emmys) party time! Before the 71st annual Emmys go live on Sunday, stars and execs are keeping busy by party-hopping in the days leading up to the big show. Here, Variety gives you the inside details on who was where and what they were doing. Keep checking back right here throughout the weekend for [...]

  • Atmosphere71st Primetime Emmy Awards Nominations Announcement,

    Emmys: Looking Ahead to 2020, Here Are Some of the Rules That the TV Academy Should Address

    When this year’s Emmy nominations were announced in July, Netflix’s gripping and powerful “When They See Us” earned several well-deserved nods, including limited series, as well as actor (Jharrel Jerome) and directing (Ava DuVernay) for limited series or a movie. It also cleaned up in the limited series supporting actor and actress categories — but [...]

  • Prodigal-Son

    TV Review: 'Prodigal Son'

    Darkness on network TV can feel a bit by-the-book; in order to impress us with how edgy they’re able to be within stricter boundaries than cable and streaming, dramas lard on violence and evil that can feel a bit unmotivated. Which is why “Prodigal Son,” a new Fox drama, is in its first three episodes [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content