TV Upfronts 2011: Safe Bets, Retreads…and Ashton Kutcher

For all the talk about innovation, learning lessons from their cable counterparts, and embracing the technologies that are changing the way viewers watch television, last week’s broadcast upfront presentations were largely a bold step into the past.

Tried-and-true formats, from police procedurals to sitcoms to talent competitions, abound. ABC and NBC, looking to ignite moribund prime-time schedules, will attempt to launch more than 11 new shows each. Fox and CBS look relatively stable by comparison, but their respective new slates seemed to say, “We’re playing it safe.”  

That’s not to say that the broadcast networks aren’t to be applauded for spending big this development season, fuelled by the promise of significant increases of what they will be able to charge for their prime-time ad inventory. Estimates have the Big Four networks raking in north of $9 billion. And if Spanish language giant Univision is figured into the mix, as it certainly should be, the figure climbs north of $10 million.

But the perennial upfront question remains: Does it really make sense to spend all those millions to launch so many new shows — more than 20 in all on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox? If the broadcast nets were truly taking a page from the cable playbook, they might consider making fewer judicious bets and funelling more money into promoting the hell out of select shows–both new shows and the returning ones that could become hits given that extra push.

Watching NBC’s upfront presentation on Monday, I was particularly struck by how retro everything felt. Comedies like Whitney and Up All Night seemed to hearken back to a time before 30 Rock or The Office. A remake of the British cop drama Prime Suspect is also in the works. Clips from two of the network’s most ballyhooed dramas — The Playboy Club, a Mad Men-esque period piece, and Smash, a Glee for grown-ups — played like transparent attempts to mimic edgy shows that worked elsewhere. That’s seldom a good sign.

Much the same could be said about ABC, which put forth a slate that was really back to the future. A sitcom with Home Improvement‘s Tim Allen, a remake of Charlie’s Angels, and its own play for Mad Men success, Pan Am, about swinging pilots and flight attendants from the 1960s, pretty much tells the story at the Alphabet Network. ABC brass unabashedly refer to their slate with phrases like “escapism” and “candy.” Sometimes viewers crave a sweet prime-time escape, but in the early analysis, nothing leaps out like back in 2004, when the network reignited its prime-time with two innovative hits, Desperate Housewives and Lost.

The upfronts weren’t totally devoid of savvy programming moves. There’s still plenty of appetite for well-produced talent competitions. NBC showed that with its successful spring launch of The Voice, which will be coming back, as will its other singing competition show, Sing-Off, which had a successful short run earlier this year. In addition, Fox’s X Factor, a format that’s already a hit in England and which will reunite American Idol icons Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, looks as close to a sure thing as any new show. (Interesting to note that those shows, as well many other successful competition series, have incredibly diverse casts, something that is lacking in most of the new scripted series, especially the comedies.)

The savviest play came from CBS, a network that prides itself on playing it safe. Its 11th-hour deal landing Ashton Kutcher to replace Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men just might save that billion-dollar franchise. Reportedly, Kutcher was signed to a package worth $1 million an episode, although CBS denies the 7-figure sum. Whatever his hefty payday is, it ain’t about his spotty post-That’s 70 Show film oeuvre. Kutcher, among the first celebrities to popularise Twitter, has some 7 million followers — who just might be worth a rating point or two.

To read more by J. Max Robins, visit The Robins Report at The Paley centre for Media.