Beyond the pesky 'Wives,' what to look for in fall '05

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All TV networks have dramas. All networks have comedies (though maybe not enough). Most networks have reality shows (though maybe too many). But it's a handful of high-profile drama and reality programs that the Big 4 networks are wielding in their fight to have the top-rated fare.

And within that battle lies one of the biggest challenges that buyers of airtime face in the upfront market: predicting ratings success, an inexact science at best.

Buying into an established show or franchise isn't a bad thing, says Charlie Rutman, CEO at Havas-owned MPG North America, New York. "We have some viewer loyalty that suggests that absolutely ratings are important [this year]," he says.

But the big prize is to be on board before a show skyrockets in the ratings, though not all top-rated shows have equal cachet. Of the top 10 Nielsen-rated shows for the week of April 18, six were dramas. Among the 10, CBS' "CSI" drama franchise and ABC's "Desperate Housewives," as well as Fox's reality hit "American Idol," seem to possess the greatest heat factor.

The networks are understandably ebullient.

Strong viewership coupled with the fact that people are gathered around the water cooler every day and are making appointments with their TV sets-or setting their TiVos-demonstrate that network TV is hot again, says NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly.

"You look at the fact that `Idol' is even hotter. ... Series TV is still a culture driver and still delivers a cultural bang," says Mr. Reilly. "For a number of years network TV was eroding, and there was an inability to find large-scale success. So there was a lot of naysaying about network TV. The business is healthy again."

Which means what for advertisers shopping the upfront bazaar?

Dramas should certainly get a second look, says Jon Nesvig, president-sales for News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting Co. "I think that the trend or what's going on is it seems as though dramas are working, and there was probably too much reality on for a while. Now, we've got less reality on because there are good dramas."

"Every year there seems to be another hot genre or sub-genre that makes it big," says Ed Gentner, senior VP-group director of national broadcast at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest USA. "Once a program hits, you see all sorts of copycats coming out. The big hit from last year is obviously `Desperate Housewives,' so you're going to see people looking at that genre-prime-time soap-like programming,"

SUBURBAN ZEITGEIST

Mr. Gentner cites as an example the new "Soccer Moms," in which ABC may be trying to repeat its own success tapping into the middle-class suburban zeitgeist. The pilot has Kristin Davis and Gina Torres teaming up to form a detective agency. "It's a prime-time soap with a private investigation hit," he says.

While drama appears hot, situation comedy continues to be not. The sitcom most consistently among the top 10 shows is CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond," which ends its nine-year network run May 19. The search for the Next Big Comedy apparently got sidetracked this season.

"The big dilemma is where is the next breakout comedy?" Mr. Gentner says. "Coming out of development there was more comedy than I expected. Whether most of it makes schedule, we'll find out in May."

Comedic veterans aren't giving up. "Seinfeld" alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus, for one, is making her latest foray with a pilot titled "Old Christine" at CBS.

Mr. Reilly is hoping that one or more of a dozen comedy pilots will help bring NBC Universal's NBC out of its comedy slump. They include "My Name is Earl" (set in a trailer park), "Early Bird" (about a retirement community) and "Lies & the Wives We Tell Them To," centered on young couples.

Indeed, some of the biggest ad opportunities may have nothing to do with slavish attention to what shows and genres populate the top 10. The quality, as opposed to the quantity, of the audience can also be a factor, though the hope never fades that the number of viewers will rise.

A good bet: UPN detective drama "Veronica Mars," which the network has renewed early despite lagging ratings. A new season for the show, which stars relative neophyte Kristin Bell, is the result of a rabid fan campaign.

Star power always pulls, at least in the minds of many network planners. For next fall, all the networks are looking to A-list talent for their next big hit. Development deals at Walt Disney Co.'s ABC include a drama starring Geena Davis (as president in "Commander in Chief") and a comedy with Heather Graham ("Emily's Reasons Why Not"). CBS's payroll boasts Jennifer Love Hewitt (untitled drama) and Sally Field (law drama "Conviction"). Fox shows feature Chris O'Donnell (law drama "Head Cases"), Alicia Silverstone (comedy "Queen B") and Brandy (untitled comedy about a single mom).

count on the writers

Yet industry watchers caution against buying into a show based solely on the magnitude of its stars. "I think that [stars] certainly help to attract attention to a show, but most people would agree it's a writer's medium," says Mr. Nesvig. "You had `Friends,' and none of those six people were well-known; you had `Seinfeld.' "

While nobody has a crystal ball, there are some shows that-because of buzz or on the basis of pilots-have a good shot, experts says.

Carolyn Finger, VP at TVtracker.com, a consultancy to the TV and media industries, says there are several shows that stand out to her-some with name recognition via their stars. "There's been buzz on `Reunion' [a drama centering on a group of high school friends] at Fox. `E-Ring' [a drama set in the Pentagon, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Taylor Hackford] for NBC has buzz. ... something like `Pros & Cons' [con men working for the FBI] at ABC is something to watch because of [`Lost' creator] J.J. Abrams."

Still, what works may have nothing to do with what the networks push or what buyers take risks on, says Stephen McPherson, prime-time entertainment president at ABC.

"I honestly think the business gets overanalyzed," he says. "Everyone would be really well-served to basically get in the mind-set of a TV fan and viewer. We try and do that as much as we can and not get too wrapped up being television executives."

Chuckle hunt

Why is it so hard to get a laugh? History is on the side of networks, but recent comedy attempts fell flat. As MediaVest’s Ed Gentner notes: "I think there’s a lot of advertiser interest in comedy"

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