Everybody Loves Chris

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Handicapping a season of programming on the basis of a few clips from the upfront and a case full of pilots is no easy job. Yet every year media agencies must place their poker chips on the broadcast network slots and take a gamble about what's going to work and what isn't.

A look at last year's winners and losers list indicates how easy it is for the consensus viewpoint to veer off in the wrong direction. High on the list of shows gaining positive buzz among buyers last year were: UPN's "Kevin Hill," CBS's "Clubhouse" and The WB's "Jack & Bobby." All three were canceled along with two reality TV shows, "The Next Great Champ" on Fox and "The Contender" on NBC. However, last season's big breakouts weren't entirely overlooked. "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" were mentioned in Advertising Age's prediction stories from last summer, but only as a footnote in conversations.

Spotting those few series that will break out this time around is a more difficult task for buyers heading in to the 2005-06 season because there seems to be a larger swath of shows gaining positive shout-outs from buyers. Ray Dundas, senior VP-group director, national broadcast, at Initiative, says, "I didn't see anything that was this year's `Father of the Pride,"' referring to the much-derided NBC animated series from DreamWorks Television. "I thought there were a lot of good thoughts from all six [broadcasters] and a good possibility of ratings strength."

Winning some of the highest ratings estimates for freshman shows on our chart are two female-skewed shows: ABC's "Commander in Chief," starring Geena Davis as the first female president, and "The Apprentice: Martha," who appears as herself as the world's first self-made female billionaire. Buyer estimates gave both shows a 12 share. The only show on the Advertising Age chart ranking higher is, CBS's "Out of Practice," a Monday night sitcom about a family of doctors starring Henry Winkler and Stockard Channing, which won a 13 share. The high estimate possibly reflects the strength of its time slot between CBS's "Two & a Half Men," and "CSI: Miami." But buyers felt this show would not have the staying power to become a hit. Another CBS sitcom, "How I Met Your Mother," was widely praised.

Gaining most favored status among advertisers this year is UPN's "Everyone Hates Chris," which is based on the life of comedian Chris Rock. "The cast is good, it has crossover appeal, and it is getting so much hype early on it will start out strong and continue if the writing is good," says Mr. Dundas.

However, one veteran research chief sounds a note of caution. Steve Sternberg, Magna Global's exec VP-director of audience analysis, says in his prime-time preseason report: "If not for the name, and that fact that `Everybody Loves Raymond' just ended its run, the show wouldn't be getting nearly the buzz it has been." He also points to its tough time slot, the killer Thursday at 8 p.m., opposite "Survivor: Guatemala." The widespread positive comment may help lift UPN, but the show may still end up in fifth place among the six. Advertising Age's share estimate chart gives "Chris" a 6 rating.

Buyers agreed a number of shows would either be unpalatable or didn't quite have broad enough appeal. NBC's "Inconceivable," a Friday night comedy series set in a fertility clinic where lawsuits abound and frozen embryos go missing, was one show advertisers seemed eager to bypass. While actress Angie Harmon ("Law & Order,") was added to the cast in June and joins Ming Na ("ER"), John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations at Minneapolis-based Campbell Mithun, wrote in a recent report: " `Inconceivable' ends up a crass, crude sexploitation with unlikable, insensitive characters in what to many is still considered a sensitive subject."

ABC's own clunker would appear to be sitcom "Freddie," starring Freddie Prinze Jr. Doug Seay, senior VP-national broadcast at Publicis & Hal Riney, thinks it is the weakest of ABC's new offerings and is in a tough time period despite the lead-in from "George Lopez."

Splitting the jury down the middle is "The Apprentice: Martha," despite the positive ratings estimate. Mr. Rash contends that Martha Stewart needs to be as tough and decisive as her counterpart Donald Trump. "If not, the show will lose the dramatic tension critical to reality TV."

Whatever fruits the networks harvest this fall, Mr. Dundas reflects the simple truth that ultimately, "Every client wants to be in `Desperate Housewives.' "

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