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Upfront” With the New TV Season

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Aired 5/26/10

Broadcast networks have just concluded the "Upfronts," the spring presentation of fall TV schedules designed to convince agencies to book advertising at early rates and to give viewers a first look at what's new (or not). We examine the probabilities of success for the new shows and the problems of scheduling.

The networks displayed their fall wares at the recent TV Upfronts
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Above: The networks displayed their fall wares at the recent TV Upfronts

Jimmy Smits finds a new job on NBC’s “Outlaw”
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Above: Jimmy Smits finds a new job on NBC’s “Outlaw”

She plays one on TV:  Dana Delany is a medical examiner in ABC’s “Body of Proof”
Enlarge this image

Above: She plays one on TV: Dana Delany is a medical examiner in ABC’s “Body of Proof”

Blair Underwood for President! in NBC’s “The Event”
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Above: Blair Underwood for President! in NBC’s “The Event”

Not Jack Lord:  Alex O’Loughlin plays Steve McGarrett for CBS
Enlarge this image

Above: Not Jack Lord: Alex O’Loughlin plays Steve McGarrett for CBS

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. It's a very expensive roll of the dice. The TV networks have announced the new shows in their lineups this fall. After months of selecting and scheduling these new shows, the networks know that only one or two of them will actually turn out to be hits, but which ones? That's what potential advertisers have to figure out at the yearly network events known as the upfronts. Stars and glitz and glamour were on hand last week during the network upfronts. Joining us to talk about what the networks are serving up this fall is my guest, Karla Peterson, television writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Karla, it’s good to see you.

KARLA PETERSON (Television Critic, San Diego Union-Tribune): It’s good to see you.

CAVANAUGH: Now before we get to what’s coming up next season, three major series came to an end this weekend. Here’s a spoiler alert for those of you who’ve recorded the finales of “24,” “Lost,” and “Law and Order.” We’re going to be talking about them. So let’s start with “Lost,” about what you thought about the ending of “Lost.” Was it satisfying, not satisfying? What did you think?

PETERSON: Well, I think the ending of “Lost” was very satisfying from an emotional standpoint. The creators really threw their chips in with the characters, so they gave us closure as far as the people were concerned. We now know that everybody ended up together in sort of a limbo situation and everybody died eventually and they were all kind of gathered together so that they could pass into the light together. And so from an emotional standpoint, it was very, very satisfying. I think if you were a more detail oriented Lostie fan and you were wondering, well, what about the Dharma Initiative? And what about Michael and Walt? And what about the hatch? And what about Eloise Hawking? I think if you were really tied up in those details, you were probably very frustrated because a lot of stuff was just left hanging.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that hatch thing really sort of sticks in my craw.

PETERSON: Well, there were many hatches.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

PETERSON: In fact, there were so many hatches I kind of lost track of all of them and some of them were blown up and then they went back in time and the hatch wasn’t blown up anymore. And it was, you know, if you were into that, you’re probably still complaining about all of the loose ends that weren’t tied up but, you know, my theory is, is that the heart remembers a lot longer than the brain does. So I think that long after everybody will have forgotten about the Dharma Initiative, you’re still going to remember that last image of Jack lying on the beach with Vincent, the dog, next to him and he’s watching his friends escape and he’s smiling and he’s at peace. And that’s an image that your heart’s going to help you remember long after your brain’s forgotten, you know, most of what happened. So I think that was smart.

CAVANAUGH: Karla, what kind of an impact did “Lost” have on television?

PETERSON: Well, I think part of the impact was it convinced the networks that people were really, really into serial programming and then they launched a whole bunch of other serials, all of which were expensive and almost none of them caught fire the way “Lost” did. So I think for the networks, it had a kind of unfortunate impact. But I think for viewers, it made the networks a little bit braver. So I think without “Lost” we would not have had “Heroes.” We wouldn’t have had “Chuck” probably. We might not have even had “How I Met Your Mother,” which was sort of a serial comedy. And I think the networks kind of took risks, many of which didn’t pay off for them, unfortunately. But I think it did give us programming that we might not have had. We wouldn’t have “V” right now if it weren’t for “Lost.” We wouldn’t have had “Flash Forward,” which unfortunately is not being renewed. And “Chuck” is hanging on at NBC and I think if it weren’t for the kind of cult fervor that the networks have seen some value in post-“Lost,” “Chuck” wouldn’t still be on the air either. And so I think it kind of pushed the boundaries and it also highlighted what you get from a feverish cult audience. And I think that, you know, the whole Comic-Con feel, I think that was something that “Lost” really brought to the fore and I think for really hardcore fan people, that’s a good thing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in its own way, another serial program, “24,” had its own cult audience. Every season “24” featured a lot of violence and mayhem. That wrapped up this week as well, but there seems to be talk that it may go on as a feature film?

PETERSON: I think there is some talk about that. There’s also talk that even though “Law and Order” had its inadvertent last episode on Monday, the creators didn’t know that the show was going to be cancelled when they filmed that. There’s also some talk that there might be some sort of TV movie to finally give some closure to “Law and Order.” That might be next year. That’s not firm at all but I think that it’s very hard for people to let go of their shows and it’s hard for the networks to let go, and so they like to kind of tie a little bow on those last episodes. And with “Law and Order” they couldn’t do that and so that may be coming back, and “24” may come back as a film.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. “Law and Order,” was that on the air for 20 years?

PETERSON: 20 seasons. And if had gotten one more season, it would’ve broken the record set by “Gunsmoke,” so now it’s tied with “Gunsmoke” as the longest running series ever.

CAVANAUGH: Now the last episode, even though they didn’t intend it, they didn’t know that it was going to be the last episode of the program, did seem to bring closure for at least one character.

PETERSON: It did. It brought some closure for the Lt. Van Buren character played by S. Epatha Maerkerson – did I…? I hope I pronounced – S. Epatha…

CAVANAUGH: That’s very good.

PETERSON: I hope I pronounced that correctly. It did, it brought some closure to the plot line about her cervical cancer, which ended up going into remission. And the wrap up of “Law and Order” actually felt like it could’ve been a show finale. She was in the bar in this party that had been thrown by her colleagues and she got the news from her doctor that she was in remission while she was at this party and so she kind of smiled and her colleagues are milling around and the crazy teacher had been put behind bars before he killed anybody, so it had a finale feel fortunately for them, even though it really wasn’t supposed to be.

CAVANAUGH: Now even though the original “Law and Order” has had its last program, “Law and Order” franchise is not going to be – not just talking about the reruns, we’re – which are going to be with us forever, but there’s – moving on to the next season, we still have shows in the “Law and Order” franchise.

PETERSON: Umm-hmm. We have “Law and Order SUV” (sic) is still on the air, I – “Law and Order”…

CAVANAUGH: “SVU.”

PETERSON: “SVU.” You know, were big, gas guzzling vehicles. No, “Law and Order SVU” is still on the air. “Law and Order Criminal Intent” is on USA right now. I don’t know if it has been renewed for another season but it’s still on the air at USA. And then NBC is going to be launching “Law and Order Los Angeles” next season. We don’t know anything about it. There’s no cast. No cast has been announced. No details really, which is interesting to me for a show that’s launching in September. But I guess the whole “Law and Order” template is such a plug-in that they can probably start things a lot later than another show can, so there’ll be more “Law and Order,” this time in Los Angeles, which should be really interesting.

CAVANAUGH: Right. The advertisers kind of know what they’re getting…

PETERSON: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …when you talk about a “Law and Order” franchise. But what were – the event that was held last week, these events called upfronts, are for advertisers to try to bet on which shows are actually going to be hits. Tell us a little bit about what goes on at these events.

PETERSON: Well, what the upfronts are, and both cable and the networks do it, is it gives advertisers an early look at the seasons and at the shows, just little clips, so that they can make their advertising buys up front. So they throw their chips in with these shows having just seen a little bit of them and if you have gambled on, say, “The Good Wife,” you did very well because as the season goes on, they can start charging more for advertising. If you bet on, you know, ‘Trauma,” for instance, you are not real happy. So it gives the advertisers an early look at the seasons and now, especially with the internet, it gives viewers an early look, too, because most clips are up. If you go on any of the network websites, they have little clips of the fall season and so you can sort of see where you want to throw your chips in, too. It’s hard to tell from two and a half minute, three and a half minute, clips but sometimes you can get a pretty good idea of at least the shows that you want to check out.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Karla Peterson. She is television writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune. And we’re talking about what the networks have showed us so far about what is on their fall lineups. And let’s start with NBC because that network perhaps was in the most trouble because of that failed experiment having Jay Leno on followed by Conan O’Brien and the network ended up having five 10:00 p.m. slots to fill because Leno did not work out in that time period. So what are NBC’s new shows?

PETERSON: Well, NBC, you know, has a big lineup. They have, let’s see, they have a show called “The Event.” Not all of these are 10:00 p.m. shows, by the way. They have “The Event,” which is a sci-fi conspiracy sort of thriller. They have “Chase,” which is a Jerry Bruckheimer big special effects, many explosions, about a U.S. Marshal, although this time it’s a woman. That looks like – the production values are huge, and it’s the kind of thing that Jerry Bruckheimer does really well that viewers like, so I think that might work for them. There’s a real interesting show called “Undercovers,” which is from J.J. Abrams, who gave us “Alias” and “Felicity” and “Lost” and the Star Trek movie, and it’s sort of like a – it’s a very “Alias”-like adventure-thriller about a female – about a man and woman who are spies, undercover spies. And that looks like it could be kind of glitzy and fun. They also have a comedy called “Outsourced,” which is kind of in the vein of “Community” and “The Office.” It’s sort of like a kind of semi-squirmy uncomfortable comedy about an American who ends up having to go to India to supervise the call center for a company that makes novelty items. So you’ve got the toilet bowl coffee mug aspect and then you’ve got the Indian employees and then you’ve got this kind of hapless U.S. guy trying to get everybody motivated, and it looks pretty funny.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk more about that ten o’clock hour, you know, that failed experiment, as I said, about Jay Leno, showed a lot of people how competitive that time slot really is. Tell us a little bit about 10:00 p.m.

PETERSON: Well, you know, 10:00 p.m. is a real problem. And I, like every other TV critic in the country, gave NBC a lot of grief for going with Jay Leno but you can see why they did it. Everything that NBC threw at ten o’clock pretty much bombed. They had all these really expensive, deluxe programs, they had “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” they had “The Black Donnellys,” they had “Kings,” they had all these shows, they kept trying to work out and nothing worked. They had Jay Leno floating around so they thought, well, we’ll kill two birds with one stone. We’ll put Jay Leno on. We won’t be spending a fortune on 10:00 p.m. You know, win-win. And, you know, the problem was not Jay Leno at ten, their problem was a bad Jay Leno show at ten. I still think it could’ve worked if it had been better. But the problem with ten is not just that the networks are competing with each other, they are competing with their own 9:00 p.m. programming, which people are DVRing and watching at ten. So what Nielsen is telling us is that increasingly people are watching DVRed programs at ten. That’s where a lot of the 10:00 p.m. eyeballs are going. They’re going back to what was on at nine.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

PETERSON: So you’re competing with the other guys, you’re competing with cable, and you’re competing with yourself at ten. And so that’s been a real problem. That’s why, you know, ABC has had tons of problems at ten o’clock. It’s very, very hard to do good programming that people will – I mean, you do good programming and people aren’t watching it. They’re watching what they already taped or they’re in bed.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETERSON: So that’s the problem with ten and it’s very, very challenging. So you can see why NBC did what they did. It wasn’t just that they were lazy. I think they thought, well, this might fix our problem.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on to CBS. What’s new, what looks good in their new fall lineup?

PETERSON: You know, CBS has a couple things. They’ve got the new “Hawaii Five-O” remake. Hard to tell with that. You know, the bad news is that it stars Alex O’Loughlin, who is a handsome actor, very charismatic, but this is his third series with CBS that had – that they’re trying. They tried “Moonlight,” the vampire drama which had a big cult following but never translated into viewers. They had “Three Rivers,” which was a medical drama which went pretty much nowhere. So they’re trying with him again. It’s a remake of “Hawaii Five-O.” It’s got that whole jazzy book-em, Danno…

CAVANAUGH: Book ‘em, Danno, right.

PETERSON: Danno is their – Danno – Danno’s in it. Daniel Dae Kim from “Lost” is in it. It looks beautiful. It’s got the Hawaii scenery, it’s got this kind of jazzy, snazzy feel to it. It’s got the old theme song all glitzed up. That could be an audience pleaser. So I think that that’s definitely worth watching. There’s also a show called “The Defenders,” which has Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell as sort of low rent Las Vegas lawyers. And they’ve got, interestingly, a show called “Bluebloods,” which has Tom Selleck in it and it’s from the writers, two writers from “The Sopranos.” And that looks like it could be a real high quality show. CBS also has a new comedy called “(Bleep) My Dad Says,” which is based on a Twitter feed by a kid who moved back in with his dad in Point Loma, by the way…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETERSON: …and started this Twitter feed about these mostly profane bits of wisdom from his dad. It’s now being turned into a sitcom with William Shatner and just based on the little clip they’ve got online, to me, it does not look promising. It looks like a very, very standard, shot before a live audience, comedy about a cranky dad. And you’ve got a title that nobody can say…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETERSON: …based on the Twitter feed that’s mostly obscene. So that’s not – You know, it’s got a lot of buzz. In fact, that show along with NBC’s “The Event” have the most Twitter activity right now as far as people being interested, people Tweeting about it, people Facebooking about it. People are very interested in those shows but “(Bleep) My Dad Says,” ehh, I’m not – I’m not feeling really optimistic about that.

CAVANAUGH: But way to go, William Shatner. Boy, he…

PETERSON: You know, he’s Mr. Energizer Bunny. You know, you put William Shatner and Betty White in a show together, and that would be a lot of – a lot of something.

CAVANAUGH: Pure TV.

PETERSON: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: What about ABC?

PETERSON: Well, ABC has always been more adventurous than everybody. They throw a lot more stuff out there every year. A lot of it doesn’t work out. But, you know, ABC gave us “Modern Family” this year, for which I am eternally grateful. And ABC has a lot of stuff going on. They have, let’s see, they’ve got “No Ordinary Family,” which is, I think, another tribute to “Lost.” It’s a sci-fi adventure drama starring Michael Chiklis from “The Shield.” And he plays the head of a family who gets involved in a plane crash in the Amazon and when it’s over, they are not the same. They go back to their ordinary lives but they are very different people. And that looks – it looks really promising. Again, very high quality, a good star, interesting concept that the challenge is going to be how do you spin that concept out, and that’s always been the post-“Lost” challenge for these shows that try something that’s a concept and how you keep people interested and how do you enlarge a concept into, you know, a story that will keep people involved. But I think that looks very promising. They also have “Body of Proof” with Dana Delany from “Desperate Housewives” where it’s sort of like a “CSI.” It almost looks like “CSI” meets “The Good Wife.” You have a woman of a certain age having to go through a life change and find a new career essentially, and she becomes a medical examine – examinator…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

PETERSON: …a medical examiner. And that could do well. I like her. I think most people like her from “Desperate Housewives.” So she’s in that, and that’s promising. There’s also a kind of a Gen-Xie sort of comedy-drama called “My Generation” about a group of young adults who were part of a documentary when they were in high school and now it’s ten years later and they’re meeting up again. It is from the co-producer of “Bones.” So I don’t know, I got kind of an iffy feeling from it but, again, you’re judging from three and a half minute clips, so it’s hard to tell. But that’s on the air, too.

CAVANAUGH: Now over on the cable networks, we know that Conan O’Brien has found a new home.

PETERSON: He has. He’s going to be on TBS, and I think that starts in, I don’t know, I’m thinking November but I honestly can’t remember the date. You know, the “George Lopez Show” has done quite well for them but Wanda Sykes, her Fox late night show, I don’t think that’s coming back so it goes to show just how challenging late night can be. And Conan’s going to be up against “The Daily Show” and I think that’s a very similar audience. And so I think it will be challenging but he has a lot of goodwill built up from the way he was treated by NBC. His tour’s done really well. The Twitter feed that he did has actually been very successful for him. So I think that – I think people will definitely follow him. I don’t know how many but I think it’s kind of exciting that that’s happening.

CAVANAUGH: Now as you look over these lineups, Karla, are there any trends that jump out at you?

PETERSON: Well, you know, we have crime. Once again, crime is always a trend. We have some sort of relationship comedies happening. There’s one from the creator of “Two and a Half Men,” Chuck Lorre, called “Mike and Molly” about two people who meet in sort of an Overeaters Anonymous kind of situation. You know, there’s – as I said, there’s a lot of crime but what this schedule reminds me of a lot is the 2006 primetime season where you had a lot of really high quality dramas starring a lot of really big names. You know, in 2006, we had “Studio 60,” we had “Smith” with Ray Liotta, we had “Kidnapped” with Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton. It was just a very, very glitzy, high quality season and many of the shows didn’t last. So it’ll be really interesting to see. I think that the networks were feeling a little bit more confident. They had the writers strike finally behind them. They saw with “Glee” and with “The Good Wife” and with “Modern Family” that you could still put on a really high quality show and the people would come. So I think the purse strings opened up a little bit, I think they were feeling a little bit braver. There’s not a lot of reality.

CAVANAUGH: That’s what I was going to say.

PETERSON: In fact, there’s hardly any at all. There’s kind of a – there’s a show on, I think it’s NBC, called “School Pride,” which is sort of like “Extreme Makeover” for schools, which is very uplifting and very positive. But as far as like the cheapo, junky reality, there’s not – and game shows, we’re not dealing with the big “Deal or No Deal” blitz. You know, I think that “Dancing with the Stars” is still on, of course. It will always be on. But I think that they’re feeling like maybe people will still watch these traditional shows. I don’t know if they will or not. I think the success of “Glee” has been really heartening because it’s such a fun show and it’s so oddball and it was such an underdog and it’s been a really big hit. And the success of “The Good Wife,” a very, very high quality show. “Modern Family,” a real big hit. And so I think they’re – I think the networks are feeling like, well, maybe we can go up against cable, you know, maybe we can do something besides reality, maybe we can really get people in. So we’ll see. And then, of course, if half these bomb out then we’re back to square one but…

CAVANAUGH: And just a mention of free cable, too. You know, we have that great show on AMC, “Mad Men.”

PETERSON: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And is there anything like that that looks – could be very promising for the new season?

PETERSON: You know, I haven’t seen a lot of the new season of cable, to tell you the truth. But one show that I’m very, very, very much in love with is “Justified,” which is on right now on FX. It stars Timothy Olyphant as this old, kind of old style Texas marshal, U.S. marshal, but in modern day, and he has to go back to his old hometown of Kentucky and deal with a lot of mess there. But he’s very charismatic. The show is inspired by an Elmore Leonard novella. And it’s clever, it’s really, really well done. All of the minor characters are beautifully cast, the writing’s fantastic, it’s very clever. And so I’m real excited about that. So if people are not watching it now, you should be watching it now. So that’s very exciting. I’m very excited about “Mad Men” coming back. We haven’t gotten a date yet but it will probably be sometime in August. “Californication” is coming back on Showtime with Rob Lowe, is going to be – I saw a picture of him in the role and it looks like he’s going very Brad Pitt scruffy, which is – I don’t know how that’s going to work but it’s a – it’s kind of a polarizing show but I’m always interested to see what they’re doing. But “Justified” is the cable thing that I’m really excited about and it’s on right now.

CAVANAUGH: And finally back to the networks, Karla. You say it kind of looks to you like the old 2006 season when the networks had a certain amount of confidence and so forth. Are they – are the networks still losing money? Or are they starting to curve and seeing more advertising revenue?

PETERSON: You know, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure. I heard that things were a little bit up this year. And more people are watching TV than ever. I mean, Nielsen keeps telling us that. You know, people are watching longer. So I think that can’t be bad for them but they’re definitely losing a lot to cable and they’re losing younger audiences to cable. And looking at this schedule now, it looks to me like maybe they’re not worried so much about trying to get that younger audience anyway. I think they might be focused on serving their core constituency as well as they possibly can. You know, the CW is the youngest-skewing network. They have two new shows, neither of which look very promising to me. One is “Nikita,” which will be the second attempt by television to do a version of “La Femme Nikita” about kind of the kick butt woman, and it looked a little old for the CW.

CAVANAUGH: Right, because that was “Alias,” right?

PETERSON: Well, the “Alias” was sort of like that, too…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

PETERSON: …but there was actually a “Nikita” that was done on cable a while back. And then the other show that the CW has is “Hellcats,” which looks like another version of “Bring It On,” you know, the cheerleader drama.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETERSON: And so, you know, that’s the youngest skewing network and I’m not seeing a lot on their – like a breakout hit like “The Vampire Diaries.” So the CW might be more in trouble even than it usually is. And the networks, I think, are feeling like, you know, we’re not going to try to get for the – get the young kids. Let’s just take our more upscale audience and give them these really plush, high quality shows and sort of see what happens.

CAVANAUGH: My last question to you, what is the one show that you’re looking forward to?

PETERSON: In the fall?

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

PETERSON: Umm, I’m stumped. A new one or an old one?

CAVANAUGH: A new one.

PETERSON: A new one. You know, I think probably the one that looks most promising to me is “Outsourced.” It looks like it’s really goofy, it looks like it’s kind of got a little of the uncomfortable comedy going but not as much as, say, “Parks and Rec,” which I still have not quite warmed up to.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

PETERSON: So I’m very, very excited about the – that looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m always ready for a new half-hour comedy. I need to wedge that into my schedule somewhere.

CAVANAUGH: And that’s coming up on NBC…

PETERSON: That’s NBC, right.

CAVANAUGH: …this fall. Thank you, Karla.

PETERSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking about the new TV season with Karla Peterson, television writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Comng up, we’ll meet the people behind the west coast premiere of the modern opera “To Be Sung.” That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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