Fox Grows Up With 'Back to You'

Media Reviews for Media People

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With a crop of shows making their debuts on cable and the fall season upon us, Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg casts a critical eye on some of TV's new and continuing series to help marketers determine which may prove to be the best showcases for their ads and products. Tonight, Fox unveils one of its most ambitious efforts to launch a sitcom with wide appeal: 'Back to You."
Back To You
Back To You Credit: Sam Jones/FOX

"Back to You"

Where/when you'll see it: Fox, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

What you'll see: A sitcom some TV watchers have dubbed "Most Likely to Be Just Right for CBS" is turning up on, of all places, Fox. CBS is the master of the modern version of the 30-minute classic, centering sitcoms on one big-name celebrity or high-concept theme (think "The New Adventures of Old Christine," starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, or "Two and a Half Men," with Charlie Sheen).

This time it's Fox testing the conceit, and with two big names: Kelsey Grammer of "Frasier" and "Cheers" fame and Patricia Heaton from "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Fox surrounds them with a cast of characters who all have a quip at the ready, and puts them all in the newsroom of a TV station in Pittsburgh. Mr. Grammer plays Chuck Darling, a Los Angeles newsman who is forced to return to his early roost after an on-air blowup. There he encounters Kelly Carr (Ms. Heaton), his former co-anchor, with whom he still has a few unresolved issues. The pair are surrounded by the usual gang of wisecracking egomaniacs and oddballs, including Josh Gad as neurotic Ryan Church, the too-young news director; Ayda Field as Montana Herrera, the sexy, scheming weathercaster; and good old Fred Willard as the goofy sportscaster Marsh McGinley.

Avid TV-watchers have seen this stuff before -- from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "Murphy Brown" to "NewsRadio" -- but rarely on Fox, long known as the home of racy fare such as "Married With Children" and "Cops." "Back to You" puts something funny -- not lascivious -- on the air that can stand alongside "House" and "24." While it's odd to see the network that continues to spackle the airwaves with stuff like "Anchorwoman" put a real meat-and-potatoes sitcom on the air, it's also fascinating that it's Fox that is trying to goose this venerable format while many critics are all but pronouncing it dead.

"Back to You" has a little ways to go. The writers need to add more depth to many of the characters, not just use them for one-liners and setups. And while Mr. Grammer and Ms. Heaton have a little heat between them, it's not of the caliber summoned by Sam Malone and Diane Chambers on "Cheers." "Back to You" needs a few episodes to gel, to be sure. Give us a few weeks so we, too, can get back to you.

What's at stake: Fox is growing up. While it still has sexy, tabloid-y fare, that's not all its putting on the air these days. For good or ill, people still think of the News Corp. network as a place where wives and husbands hurl sexually laced insults at each other and supermodels jiggle and laugh. That's no longer so. "Back to You" seems like an attempt to appeal to the network's slightly older audience (media buyers say the median age of Fox's viewer has risen in the past few years). As such, it could bring a wider array of ad categories to a channel that has long been a go-to place for movie studios, fast-food chains and soda-pop sellers.

Who's onboard: Among Fox's big clients are AT&T and Verizon, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, and fast-food player Yum Brands. These are marketers whose flashy fare plays well in edgy, action-driven content. It's fair to say that more-conservative advertisers -- including package-goods companies and automakers -- could find "Back To You" a suitable vehicle for reaching a broader audience.

Your ad here? "Back To You" aims to be a clever, urbane comedy that has viewers in more than just Los Angeles and New York in its sights. Marketers who want to get a message out to mass audiences might try the program out to see if it brings in the throngs who need consumer staples such as laundry detergent, soap and toothpaste. Because the program actually features scenes from the characters doing their newscast, there's no reason some creative person couldn't come up with a way to cut to faux commercials and devise some sort of product integration.

Media buyer's verdict: "It's going to play more toward the 25-to-54 segment of the demo, the older segment of the demographic," said David Scardino, entertainment specialist at independent RPA of Santa Monica, Calif. "It's certainly got a good shot, and it's got a great pedigree, and the writers have great credits. It fits with Fox sort of broadening out their audience."
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