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Upfronts '05: What We Learned

I spent the bulk of this week at a technology conference in New York City. During one of the breaks, I was lamenting to a colleague about how I had come across the country, to the very city where the networks were giving their upfront presentation and unveiling their new fall line-ups, but instead was spending my time listening to the ins and outs of web syndication technologies.

The colleague lost me at “upfronts.” Yes, even people brilliant enough to discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of RSS versus Atom syndication models and opine on the concept of “structured blogging” get a bit cross-eyed when they try to understand the insanity that is the television business.

So let’s break it down scientifically. For one week every year, the networks call all the local animal shelters and stables and reserve every single dog and pony in the Tri-State Area. The result are the upfronts, which are traditionally important because it’s the way that networks present their fall line-ups to advertisers. More importantly to you and me, however, this is the time when we find out which of the current crop of TV series are officially cancelled. We also get a glimpse (via excruciatingly vague press releases and hastily Photoshopped images) at the new shows that we’ll all be seeing this fall.

It’s a big time. And in the next few days, we at TeeVee will be trying our best to give you the ins and outs of each network’s schedule. (If you want to see a full prime time grid of the fall season, TeeVee pal Laurel Krahn has got you covered.) But in the meantime, here’s a quick overview of what happened this week.

Deserved deaths. Several cancelled shows have outlived their usefulness and been sent to the cornfield: 8 Simple Rules, Star Trek: Enterprise, Third Watch, Judging Amy, and Joan of Arcadia are the five best examples. Yes, those shows were on the air this year — you just didn’t notice. Proving that even the sun has to shop shining sometime, JAG is leaving our airwaves forever, although it is survived by NCIS. And the last remaining comedy or drama from TeeVee’s debut year of 1996, Everybody Loves Raymond, has retired. Do we feel old.

Undeserved deaths. You could argue that Eyes, Blind Justice, Jack and Bobby, and American Dreams deserved better. I won’t, but you could.

Undeserved life. If this were a normal year, you’d expect that Arrested Development, Jake in Progress, and The Office would be subject of much weeping and gnashing of teeth by angry fans who are simply furious at cruel network executives who cancelled these shows rather than sticking with them and giving them more of a chance to find an audience. (Well, except for Arrested Development, which I enjoy quite a bit but has proven that it couldn’t find an audience if it wandered into a Broadway theatre at showtime.)

But this is not a normal year. And so these ratings-challenged series are all back for the fall. Hooray for the cold-hearted network executives! Until all three of these shows get cancelled next May.

Franchise Mania is at an end. Law and Order: Trial By Jury, shitcanned by NBC, is the chirping canary in the television coal mine. It’s the first flop by a major franchise, and please let it be a brake on the expansion plans of CSI as well. My small prediction: next year will mark the end of another Law and Order show, and at least one CSI will start to seriously fade.

Bruckheimer Mania is at its peak. Überproducer Jerry Bruckheimer has ten shows on the air. At some point, the market for the slickly-produced procedural show is going to cool. I think it might be this year. But with so many irons in the fire, Bruckheimer will be a dominant TV force for years to come.

Attention aliens: please begin your invasion now. Following up on the success of Lost, the copycats at the networks have littered their schedules with stealth sci-fi series great and small. The three near-identical shows are NBC’s Fathom (a team of experts investigates strange happenings in the oceans!), ABC’s Invasion (a team of Florida townspeople investigates strange happenings after a hurricane!), and CBS’s Threshold (a team of experts investigates strange happenings in the oceans!). There’s just one problem with all of these Lost-like shows: Lost isn’t a show about alien invasions. So why the three identical alien plots? In other sci-fi news, there’s The Night Stalker, which would be an X-Files retread if The X-Files were not itself a retread of the original Night Stalker. And there’s Ghost Whisperer, which is a retread of Medium.

The Buffy employment plan is in effect. Willow’s got a job (CBS’s How I Met Your Mother). Xander’s got a job (Fox’s Kitchen Confidential). Angel’s got a job (Fox’s Bones). Oz’s got a job (NBC’s Four Kings). Even Angel’s Fred’s found work (CBS’s The Unit). Poor Eliza Dushku, whose Tru Calling was shown the door. Maybe she should’ve agreed to that Faith spin-off after all.

Comedy: dead or alive? Fox has approximately a zillion comedies on its fall schedule. NBC has four. Wow, way to find the next Friends, NBC! Even more shockingly, Fox has no reality TV shows on its fall line-up. (Yes, American Idol will be back in the spring.) Guess Fox has realized what the rest of us figured out two years ago: reality TV doesn’t suck. Fox reality TV sucks.

There were so many lessons we learned this week. These are only a few. Stay tuned for more in the next week, as we dive deep into the underbelly of each network’s fall schedule.


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