ABC comes out strong, CBS comes out swinging

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The judgment on last week's upfront presentations from media buyers went much like this past season: ABC came out surprisingly strong while NBC fell flat.

A number of agency executives expressed dismay that NBC was leaving its underperforming Thursday night schedule intact. Those who spoke to Advertising Age felt NBC's presentation, which kicked off the week, was lackluster compared to rival presentations that came later. NBC launched only six new shows, including Jerry Bruckheimer military drama "E-Ring," though Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal TV Group president, said the network might make schedule changes once rival networks had presented their new schedules.

"I was very disappointed and can't understand why they didn't change Thursday," said one broadcast buyer. "A couple of the shows are relatively weak to begin with. I don't know what they had beyond [the fall shows] in development. I wonder if the people in Hollywood preferred going to ABC or CBS with their `A' projects?"

Many were mystified that NBC recommitted to "Friends" spin-off "Joey," which starts off Thursday night at 8pm. It will be followed by the final season of "Will & Grace," and one of two weekly editions of "The Apprentice" and stalwart drama "ER."

Harry Keeshan, exec VP-national broadcast buying at Omnicom's PHD, observed that the schedules will see some audience shifts next year, but thought that a sharpened "Joey" might prove enough to lift NBC's Thursday. NBC is planning to widen the cast.

Among other new shows on NBC's fall schedule were the widely praised "My Name is Earl" and "Inconceivable," a comedy set in a fertility clinic that got a thumbs down. While buyers were personally pleased that "The Office," is back, they felt it was unlikely to ever gain mainstream status.

Meanwhile, buyers were enraptured with ABC's new schedule under President-Entertainment Steve McPherson. They praised the "Lost" time shift from 8pm to 9pm on Wednesday and elevating "Commander-in-Chief" with Geena Davis to most-promising new show status on the alphabet network. Buyers were also thankful that ABC spent most of its two-hour-plus presentation focusing on its prime-time schedule rather than its morning and late night shows. Buyers predict Sunday night will stay golden for ABC thanks to "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy."

PUMMELING TIME

Some fear, however, that ABC has made too many alterations to the scheduling of existing series. On the positive side, buyers felt that ABC's pitch was perfect. "They didn't oversell me," said one.

Over at Carnegie Hall, CBS's relentless pummeling of rival NBC from Chairman Les Moonves was described as "distasteful" and "over-the-top." Share estimates from media-buying firms predict CBS will lead on the key night, Thursdays, with "Survivor: Guatemala," followed by "CSI" and "Without a Trace." Once ABC no longer has "Monday Night Football" on its schedule, CBS's sitcoms, media buyers predict, will trump ABC's. While no one can argue with CBS's strong numbers, Mr. Keeshan wondered how many more psychological thrillers the audience can take. CBS added six new shows to its fall line-up, including "Criminal Minds," about FBI profilers who analyze the most twisted minds. Two shows, however, really stood out: "Close to Home," another crime-based drama, and "How I Met Your Mother," a boy-meets-girl sitcom set in the present but told from the future.

Gone from Fox's schedule are the down-market reality shows that at times defined the network. In their place is a surprising array of strong dramas, such as "Prison Break." "The best presentation was Fox. They had the best schedule and the best attitude. [President-sales] Jon Nesvig has it all figured out," said Gene DeWitt, chairman of DeWitt Media Options.

The smaller broadcast networks were not without their surprises. Media buyers were enthusiastic about "Everyone Hates Chris," starring Chris Rock, who performed at the UPN upfront. Buyers had a mixed response to The WB, with some saying there was little to write home about, while others felt a show like "Twins" showed promise.

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