It’s back to the future time for ABC this fall.
The network still has plenty of tentpole hits on its lineup, with "Desperate Housewives," "Grey’s Anatomy," "Brothers & Sisters," "Dancing with the Stars" and "Lost" all continuing to draw healthy numbers of young adults each week.
But "Lost" ends its run in May. And ABC’s other success stories are starting to show signs of aging.
That’s why ABC chief Steve McPherson says he had one big goal in mind when developing shows for next season.
"We wanted to look for the next generation of drama hits," he said.
And while McPherson says that "you can’t really ever go back in time," it feels a lot like 2004 at ABC this season.
That’s the year McPherson took control of the Alphabet network and began its transformation from also-ran to contender. He focused almost all of his marketing energies on "Lost" and "DH," and — critics be damned — launched a whopping nine new shows between September and March.
McPherson is rolling the dice again this year, with nine new shows slated to roll out before year’s end. ABC is also focusing most of its marketing on two projects: drama "Flash Forward" and a built-from-scratch Wednesday night comedy block.
"I think it’s ambitious," McPherson admits. "But I think it’s appropriate for where the TV landscape is right now. We believe we have to be bold and we have to be ambitious."
The five tentpoles mentioned above keep ABC in the game on several nights of the week. Plus, "The Bachelor" has staged a comeback in the past year and is once again a player for the network.
And by moving "Ugly Betty" to Fridays, ABC has a good chance of beefing up its numbers on a tough night.
Overall, even though ABC finished last season in third place in demos, the network enters the new season with a slew of building blocks that could help launch the hits McPherson wants.
BIG HOPE — "Flash Forward"
ABC greenlit this big, sprawling drama earlier than any other hour on its lineup and began marketing the show all the way back in April. It’s deluged viewers with promos all summer long, not to mention all manner of non-traditional marketing.
It’s clear the network wants this show to be the next "Lost." But will viewers get wrapped up in "FF’s" bold premise — what if every one in the world blanked out for a few minutes — or will they turn away from the prospect of another drawn out mystery that could take years to solve?
Early critical buzz has been mostly positive, and the show’s 8 p.m. Thursday slot has room for a new hit.
BIG RISK — The Wednesday comedy block.
Four comedies. All new. One night.
You can’t do that on television!
And yet, ABC is going forward with its plan to administer a major shock to its Wednesday lineup. Using the critically adored new single camera "Modern Family" as an anchor, the network is also premiering new sitcoms starring comedy giants Kelsey Grammer ("Hank"), Patricia Heaton ("The Middle") and Courteney Cox ("Cougar Town.")
The network rulebook says you need to launch new comedies out of existing hits. Unfortunately, while "Samantha Who" almost worked, in the end, it didn’t, leaving ABC with no comedy tentpoles whatsoever (sorry, "Scrubs," you don’t count.)
ABC is hoping a mix of big stars and big buzz for "Modern Family" will convince viewers looking for laughs to check out its new block.
"People want to laugh," McPherson said. "If you look at movies and the comedies that are working on CBS, people clearly have an appetite for comedy…. People want to escape a little bit, and they want to be entertained. It’s a really tough time out there."
McPherson developed "CSI" for ABC, then had to watch helplessly as corporate bosses let the show jump to CBS. He’s been trying to develop another show with Jerry Bruckheimer ever since, and this fall is hoping "The Forgotten" (starring Christian Slater) will be the procedural crime drama ABC needs so badly.
ABC also hopes the "Desperate Housewives" crowd will check out "Eastwick," its take on the "The Witches of Eastwick" airing Wednesdays at 9. Critics will sneer, but this could be a crowdpleaser.
In November, ABC will introduce a new take on the much-loved 1980s miniseries "V." If future episodes live up to its pilot, it could be a sleeper.
And on deck for midseason: The "Twin Peaks"-like "Happy Town" and the legal drama "The Deep End."
THE NETWORK’S TAKE
While there’s a good chance ABC will finish in third place again this season — even if some of its new shows hit — McPherson believes the traditional network horse race isn’t the end all, be all these days.
"You have to play your game," he said. "Yes, you have to play to win. And conceding you could be in third or fourth place doesn’t make any sense. But it’s really about having nights that work, and shows that work, and monetizing shows effectively. It’s a very complicated equation to measure success now."
Rivals snipe, but in an era of downsizing and managing for margins, there’s something refreshing about ABC’s old-fashioned, let’s put on a show, dammit, approach to programming. It’s putting on big series, with big ideas and big production values.
Hollywood insiders should be rooting for ABC to succeed, since the alternative could be another 10 p.m. talk show. We think the Alphabet’s got a shot, especially if a couple of its Wednesday comedies can break out.