We try to guess what advertisers will buy — as they try to guess what viewers will watch
ABC has high hopes for the aliens-next-door comedy "Neighbors." Fox is banking on new Tuesday night comedies and the Kevin Bacon drama "The Following." NBC is giving a big rollout to J.J. Abrams' "Revolution," and CBS looks very confident in the new sitcom "Partners," about gay and straight best friends.
The CW, after a rough season, is going a little wild. In a good way.
As they unveiled their 2012-13 schedules to advertisers at upfront presentations last week, the networks revealed what they see as their most likely hits. Nothing signals big expectations for a show like scheduling it after "The Voice," as NBC is doing with "Revolution," or after "Modern Family," as ABC is doing with "Neighbors."
Also read: The Complete 2012 Fall Schedule
Billions of dollars in ad buys are at stake. Advertisers spent $9.2 billion on primetime network ads last season and are expected to spend that much or slightly more this time around.
At the parties that follow the upfronts, where networks try to wine and dine advertisers into shifting some of that money their way, TheWrap talked with two dozen buyers, planners, and researchers out of the hundreds that attended the presentations.
We asked what shows, at this early stage, looked good or bad, and let them speak anonymously so they wouldn't have to risk offending the networks with which they do business. Their opinions, which by no means amount to a scientific survey, helped inform our impressions about the new season as we try to gauge which networks' bets will pay off.
It's unclear whether "Neighbors" deserves its prime-time real estate after "Modern Family," ABC's biggest hit and TV's most successful scripted show.
Among the advertisers we spoke to, no show received as many unfavorable comments as "Neighbors." A fourth of our small, ad hoc focus group expressed negative opinions of it, based on the short clip they were shown during ABC's presentation. One person said it seemed like a wannabe "3rd Rock From the Sun." Another said it seemed gimmicky, like ABC's disastrous "Cavemen."
ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee's sense of humor doesn't always jibe with those of critics or audiences: He proudly defended the 2011-12 season's fast-canceled cross-dressing comedy "Work It."
Upfronts veteran Brad Adgate, vice president of research for Horizon Media, cautioned against judging any show too harshly at this stage. He said network executives didn't take lightly the decision to give "Neighbors" the post-"Modern Family" time slot on Wednesdays.
"They’ve looked at the pilot, they’ve tested the show, so I think you have to say these guys know what they're doing," he said. "Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in that position."
The new Connie Britton-Hayden Panettiere drama "Nashville" will follow "Neighbors" on Wednesdays. It should get some positive media buzz from Britton's casting: "Friday Night Lights" made her a favorite of many TV critics. ABC also hopes to tap the large country music audience rarely courted by network shows. It hopes to draw the same audience with the Friday comedy "Malibu Country," starring Reba McEntire.
ABC's new nuclear submarine drama "Last Resort" also stood out for advertisers for its ambitious concept, but ABC is putting it in a tough time slot, on Thursdays at 8 p.m., against Fox's top-rated "American Idol" and two hit CBS comedies, "Big Bang Theory" and "Two and a Half Men." Its subject matter is a little heavy for the hour – and perhaps any hour. It's about a submarine crew that goes rogue after it gets a sketchy-sounding order to attack Pakistan.
CBS's upfront presentation seems to have been the most warmly received, perhaps because it had the simplest message: We're No. 1.
The most-watched network was able to promise advertisers that every show on its schedule will be either a returning success story, or a new series in a comfortable time slot, cushioned by past hits.
CBS made a very confident move by shifting "Two and a Half Men," which anchored its Monday hit comedies this season, to Thursday, where it will be paired with the network's other top-rated sitcom, "Big Bang Theory." Together they will challenge "Idol," the top-rated non-sports series on TV.
Replacing "Men" on Mondays will be "Partners," a buddy show about homosexual and heterosexual best friends who also work together. It received a very enthusiastic reception at the upfront, and was among the most popular shows among the advertisers with whom we spoke. A quarter of them liked it.
Expectations are high for CBS shows – the network has little tolerance for underperformers. But the show from "Will & Grace" creators David Kohan and Max Mutchick looks like it will hold its own.
CBS's "Elementary," a Sherlock Holmes update with Jonny Lee Miller playing the investigator as a recovering addict and Lucy Liu as his watchful Watson, also has good early buzz. It benefits from a character everyone knows (at least from the Robert Downey, Jr. movies, if not from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books) and something networks can't resist: a familiar concept with a modern twist.
"The Following" can't help but grab attention. It's a scary-looking serial-killer drama with Kevin Bacon in the lead. Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly called it "the casting coup of the year," though a case could also be made for Dennis Quaid agreeing to star in CBS's "Vegas." Advertisers are intrigued by "The Following" – about a quarter of the ones we spoke to liked it – though one woman said it might be too scary.
Fox is moving its Tuesday hit "Glee" to Thursdays, leaving "The New Girl" to anchor two hours of sitcoms. One of them will be the new "Ben & Kate," which got a positive reception from several of the advertisers with whom we spoke.
Also read: Fox's 2012-13 Lineup: The Complete List
The new "Mindy," starring "Office" vet Mindy Kaling, got a mixed reception. One person said its awkward heroine seemed a good match with Zooey Deschanel's Jess on "The New Girl," which looks to be Fox's thinking as well. A buyer expressed hope the show would work, but wondered if Kaling could carry a show on her own.
NBC, the fourth-place network, had the most to prove to advertisers and didn't make a lot of strong impressions. Adgate, for whom NBC is a former client, found its upfront the least impressive of those by the four biggest networks. Its presentation, including Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty from "Smash," three of the four "Voice" judges, and a cute capuchin monkey, was as varied as CBS's was straightforward
The monkey came courtesy of the new veterinary comedy "Animal Practice."
NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke joked that the capuchin monkey, Crystal, was the network's highest-testing new character, narrowly beating the show's human star, Justin Kirk. That set NBC up for some easy punch lines.
Jimmy Kimmel said at the ABC upfront, referring to "Animal Practice" and the judges' rotating seats on "The Voice": "Spinning chairs and a monkey – this truly is the golden age of television."
NBC also has "Revolution," a high-concept show that is one of the most ambitious of the fall. The network is giving it its most-desired time slot, the hour after "The Voice" on Monday nights. The show grabbed advertisers' attention with its high-concept: What if all the energy sources in the world disappeared at once? NBC was also sure to flash the name of executive producer J.J. Abrams across the screen.
But since Abrams' "Lost" became a hit for ABC nearly eight years ago, several other high-concept, sci-fi-tinged shows have come and gone, including ABC's "FlashForward" and NBC's "The Event." Advertisers are well aware of that fact.
NBC also generated some advertiser interest in "Chicago Fire," from "Law & Order" maestro Dick Wolf, because of its focus on the innate drama and emotion of firefighting, as well as its pedigree.
The CW is coming off a season of ratings slides, so it wasn't surprising that network president Mark Pedowitz said next season could be "transformative." That sounds like another way of saying next season will about rebuilding.
Which is great. TV networks can be at their best when they don't have much to lose, and the CW is going big with changes. Every night features a new show, a returning show at a new time, or both.
The network is giving its best launching pad to "Beauty and the Beast," which will air after the network's top-rated "Vampire Diaries" on Thursday nights. It got a positive reception during the upfront Thursday, though none of the people with whom we spoke specifically singled out CW shows among their best bets for 2012-13.
CW may have two aces in the hole for mid-season, however: "The Cult," about a TV show with a violent and dangerous fan base, should at least get some sampling from lovers of dark, cult shows. It's based on them, after all.
And "The Carrie Diaries," which imagines "Sex and the City" protagonist Carrie Bradshaw in her early years, seems to have several built-in audiences. It should draw curious "Sex in the City" fans, as well as anyone with '80s nostalgia. Its soundtrack is a pop-rock dream.