TV UPFRONT UPDATE: CBS IS THE ONE TO WATCH

Media Buyers React to Networks' Presentations

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- CBS emerged as the network to watch next season after last week's broadcast TV upfront presentations. Both CBS and NBC unveiled just a handful
CBS is seen as closing in on the leadership position for upfront buyers.
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of new offerings, choosing to focus on stability as they duke it out for the top slot.

The upfront refers to the freewheeling auction that takes place each spring as the TV broadcast networks try to sell between 75% and 80% of their commercial airtime ahead (or "upfront") of the new fall TV season.

"CBS is closing in on a leadership position. CBS is showing the ratings gains," said Kristi Argylian, executive vice president and media director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, who has two clients in the market, Dunkin' Donuts and CVS.

Making a better case
CSI: New York is expected to be the network's biggest hit, while Clubhouse, a drama about a bat boy for a major league New York team, also drew some praise. Though some media agency executives remained supportive of NBC, the consensus is CBS made the better case.

So concerned is NBC about shoring up confidence in its formerly formidable Thursday night, it took the unusual step of airing the full pilot episode of Friends spinoff Joey for media buyers. The network hasn't aired a full pilot at an upfront presentation since 1984's The Cosby Show. While many buyers said Joey was better than expected, some question whether the sitcom has the legs to deliver Friends-size ratings and suggested supporting cast improvements. Joey takes over the crucial Friends 8 p.m. slot.

'Mixed reaction'
Initiative Media's Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vice president and director of global research, said: "There is a lot of mixed reaction to this show. I think Joey is endearing, but I'm not convinced he has the right cast around him." Another senior agency executive who didn't wish to be named said: "Joey met expectations, but it didn't exceed them."

NBC predicts it will end next season on top, banking mainly on the strength of The Apprentice. But rivals CBS and Fox Network are already smelling blood, something that buyers have duly noted with CBS scheduling Survivor: Vanuatu, to run in the 8 p.m. slot and Fox Network slotting teen sensation The O.C. for the same time.

Overall, Ms. Koerner believes the level of shows has improved on last year's offering. "Last year, everyone came away wondering what on earth are they putting on the air? This year they are taking some risks."

ABC's mixed bag
Steve McPherson, ABC's new president for prime-time entertainment, was widely praised for his upfront performance, though the shows were described as a mixed bag. ABC's attempts to rebuild its Tuesday and Friday comedy blocks were noted, given the dearth of strong sitcoms across the board.

In the drama category, ABC's Desperate Housewives -- described by agencies as The Stepford Wives meets American Beauty -- could be a good bet, given that HBO built a strong female audience in the Sunday night 9 p.m. slot with Sex and the City. Separately, Lost, a drama series about people who get stranded on a strange island after a plane crash, was jokingly referred to as "Lost It," by media agency executives.

A head-scratching decision
Fox's decision to schedule new shows year round, in what will essentially be three mini-seasons, had some scratching their heads in confusion. "Viewers like to be comfortable with the schedule," said Roy Rothstein, Zenith Media's vice president and director of national research, who wondered if people would be able to keep up with all the changes.

Commenting on CBS sibling UPN, Mr. Rothstein said: "They have put themselves back on the map," with a new season of America's Next Top Model and Veronica Mars, a show about a teen crime solver.

Comeback for the WB?
The WB's lineup is seen as stronger than past years, with more reality-TV series scheduled, such as Studio 7 and Wannabes. The network, owned by Time Warner and Tribune Co., also has the world broadcast TV premiere of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring this November. Teen drama Jack and Bobby about two brothers, one of whom is destined to become a president, was also one of the more buzzed-about shows.

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