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ABC Braces for Deep Impact With ‘Idol,’ ‘Inhuman’ Challenges

After two seasons of double-digit ratings declines, the pressure has been turned up on ABC to demonstrate growth this season.

Turning around a primetime battleship is hard enough under the best of circumstances — just ask the team at Fox, or NBC until recently.

But ABC heads into the fall frenzy grappling with behind-the-scenes creative challenges for two of its high-profile programming bets: the revival of “American Idol” and the latest Marvel-branded fantasy vehicle, “Inhumans.”

On the bright side, the response has been good so far for new comedy “The Mayor,” which made its pilot available online earlier this month. Awareness of the Freddie Highmore medical drama “The Good Doctor” is strong, with nearly 33 million views of the show’s trailer logged since the May upfront announcement. And there are high expectations for the swan-song season of “Scandal” beginning Oct. 5.

But low audience circulation over the summer, in general, means a network has to work harder to generate buzz and sampling for all of its new series. This time around, ABC staffers are tackling that uphill battle amid the specter of layoffs and restructuring within Disney’s TV units, expected by year’s end, if not sooner.

The usual level of fall-launch anxiety is ratcheted up significantly because while rumors abound, there’s been no clear mandate articulated yet by Disney/ABC TV Group chief Ben Sherwood about the division-wide changes afoot.

Insiders said there have been mixed signals coming from Sherwood and Bruce Rosenblum, Disney/ABC’s president of business operations, which has added to the sense of uncertainty. A high-level source said the pending cuts will be far less draconian than the speculated 10% workforce chop, and that the impact will be minimal in programming and production for ABC and ABC Studios. But nerves remain on edge.

ABC declined to comment for this story.

Jitters within ABC are not helped by the fact that the network has been scrambling to solidify the on-air talent for the reanimated “Idol.” With barely a week to go before the show is set to hit the road for filming of the early audition rounds, Luke Bryan finally closed a deal Sept. 24 to serve as a judge alongside Katy Perry, but the third slot remains open. Nor has Team “Idol” at ABC or FremantleMedia North America offered a glimpse of how the show will be freshened, coming just two years after its final bow on Fox.

Network TV Ratings Year over Year

A source close to the situation said production on the auditions might be pushed back a day or two at most while the final judging panel is locked in. “Idol” is expected to premiere shortly after ABC’s March 4 telecast of the Academy Awards, which is the broadest promotional platform the network has to offer. Sources emphasized that with nearly six months to go, there’s still plenty of time to work out the hitches in the new-model “Idol.”

Those hitches come down to dollars and cents. ABC and Fremantle are said to have set a $50 million talent budget for “Idol.” The revelation that Perry commanded $25 million for the coming season complicated negotiations to bring host Ryan Seacrest back to the show. He eventually came aboard, with a $15 million-a-year deal. The Perry and Seacrest pacts left less than $10 million to split between the two additional judges. Bryan and another prospect, Lionel Richie, are said to have balked initially at what they saw as lowball offers.

Richie, who years ago flirted with an on-camera role in “Duets,” a previous ABC attempt at launching a singing competition, walked away from “Idol” talks after ABC failed to significantly increase its offer. With the clock winding down, sources tell Variety that the network is zeroing in on hip-hop artist and actor Common as a possible third judge.

The push to bring “Idol” to ABC’s air came from the top, and Sherwood’s support for the show has not dimmed, despite the scramble for talent. One big plus for “Idol” at a time when ABC and other broadcast nets are trying to reinvent themselves is that the show offers natural partnerships with Disney’s theme parks and other business units. That was a big selling point for “Idol” and a justification for Perry’s hefty paycheck.

I think that the episode that you guys have seen is still a bit of a work
in progress.”

Channing Dungey

The same level of enthusiasm does not, however, exist within many at ABC for “Inhumans.” Reviews thus far have been largely negative, reflecting the sentiment inside ABC. Network executives expressed concerns early on to Marvel Television, which produces the series. Subsequent work by Marvel to fine-tune the visuals did little to allay concerns at the network, where executives felt that the scripts were as problematic as the effects that had been mocked by the Marvel fan community on Twitter after a trailer was released. As Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta wrote on Twitter when scenes from the show were screened at Comic-Con in July, “Wow #Inhumans looks worse than I ever possibly could have imagined. Badly written, horrible costumes, [cheap-looking] designs, film …  school level looking visual effects, unmotivated overlit [cinematography], unnecessary slow motion shots. The crowd laughed at the footage.”

“Inhumans” showrunner Scott Buck has already taken a drubbing from fans for steering Netflix’s widely panned Marvel drama “Iron Fist.” In her review of “Inhumans” for Variety, critic Maureen Ryan wrote, “‘Iron Fist’ looks like ‘Citizen Kane’ next to this slapped-together, incoherent, cheap-looking mess.”

When ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey faced questions about the quality of the show in August from reporters who had viewed the premiere at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, she responded, “I think that the episode that you guys have seen is still a bit of a work in progress.”

Thanks to an innovative financing deal with Imax, “Inhumans” comes to ABC with most of its production costs covered, reducing the pressure for the show to perform well when it debuts Sept. 29. The first two episodes of the program were screened in Imax theaters for a week starting Labor Day weekend. The stunt grossed about $1.5 million domestically in nearly 400 theaters, but it also generated more tepid buzz for the series, which revolves around a society of superpowered people who live in a secret colony on the moon.

“Inhumans” has not been the only source of friction between ABC and Marvel. Earlier this year, the mandate came down from Disney for ABC to renew its other Marvel drama, “Agents of SHIELD,” despite the desire by some at the network to end the series after four seasons. Having aired on Tuesdays since its inception, “SHIELD” is shifting to Friday nights this season when “Inhumans” finishes its initial eight-episode run.

With linear ratings across television in decline, ABC is not alone in facing a host of challenges this season. But if the network has any hope of improving its lot in the ratings race, it will likely need “Idol” to perform in superheroic fashion, and for internal instability to come to a swift conclusion.

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