Fox’s “Empire” swallowed up so much oxygen that it’s easy to forget ABC had a very strong 2014-15 season too, anchored by not just “How to Get Away With Murder,” Shonda Rhimes’ latest dramatic hit, but the network’s ability to renew several new comedies, among them the diversely cast “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” Naturally, the network was all too eager to remind advertisers of that fact during Tuesday’s upfront presentation, which saw ABC unveil a more stable lineup than we’ve seen in recent years while taking a few interesting stabs, designed to create a bit of buzz, if not necessarily knock ’em dead by Nielsen standards.
Like Fox, ABC came into the upfront with a bit of momentum to tout and a clear vision of where its strengths lie. And unlike NBC, the network was able to point to the power of its news division, even working “World News” anchor David Muir into its “How to Get Away With Murder”-inspired opening spoof featuring the network’s talent, a role that NBC’s Brian Williams surely once would have embraced.
As always, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee was a little too rah-rah for his own good — he said “a world of choice” and “passion” so many times one feared he was getting residuals for it — but at least he, and the network, had a story to tell. That was also augmented by a fairly solid sales pitch at the outset regarding a more targeted advertising approach, the kind of thing destined to make a layman’s eyes roll back in his head, but which surely sounded good to those people for whom TV shows are just the stuff between the commercials.
Perhaps foremost, ABC was able to bring back three nights — Monday, Wednesday and Thursday — unchanged, while previewing “bridge shows” that will fill in the gaps with original content when those programs take a breather. Changes were also minimal on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, with “The Muppets” and “Of Kings and Prophets” (pictured) seemingly representing the biggest dice rolls that could have a solid up side if executed properly.
Other programs, such as “Oil” (a soap featuring Don Johnson), “Quantico” and “Wicked City,” at least looked to be thematically in ABC’s wheelhouse. And Lee actually sounded like his counterparts over at CBS when he was able to boast about Rhimes’ “TGIT” lineup having “the best flow” of any night on television, a throwback reminder that scheduling actually still matters.
ABC also did all it could to link itself to corporate parent Disney, a company that’s on something of a roll, especially with the Marvel theatricals and “Star Wars” now destined to fatten its coffers. In that regard, Lee was as wise to cite a planned live Disneyland anniversary special as he was to make the obligatory nod to Disney CEO Bob Iger. Heck, even Jimmy Kimmel — as usual, clever and funny, while somewhat over-staying his welcome — joined in the act, saying Disney was making so much money from its movies that whether ABC contributed anything to the bottom line was wholly irrelevant. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of the Walt Disney Co.)
Granted, it was hard to immediately see a “wow” concept in ABC’s development, and a night like Tuesday — where “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” is a somewhat weak centerpiece — doesn’t offer much opportunity for growth. Still, at least all the pieces seem to fit. After that, with a few breaks the network could discover, with apologies to one of its new stars, that it’s actually pretty easy making green.
Preliminary grade (subject to revision): B.