Ain't Life a 'B----' for ABC?

Tuning In: Profane Allusion in Sitcom Title May Not Spell Success

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If you can say $#*! on TV, then uttering B---- won't be a problem, either.

ABC -- a network owned by Walt Disney, the most family-friendly company on Earth -- said Tuesday that it plans to launch a sitcom this April called "Don't Trust the B---- In Apartment 23." About a year and a half ago, CBS found little success with a sitcom whose title, "$#*! My Dad Says," was funnier than the series itself.

Is ABC attempting a viable entry into the new Era of the Sitcom, sparked by a soaring "Modern Family" and attention accorded Fox's "New Girl"? Or is it just hoping a little real-life talk perks up viewers' ears and sends pro-decency organizations into paroxysms of outrage, ginning up publicity for the program all the while?

No surprise, we pick the latter.

Originally expected to show up on the schedule a little earlier than April, "Apartment 23" -- which didn't have the B-word in its title when ABC unveiled it to ad buyers and sponsors in last May's upfront meetings -- wouldn't seem to have lots of momentum. Most shows introduced on the back end of the TV season (which closes in May) are fizzlers: programs that once had the eye of the network chiefs but got lost in the shuffle as other shows generated ratings or programs in the pipeline showed more promise.

We may have to eat our words. "Happy Endings" is faring well on the ABC prime-time schedule, and it had a late-season launch. And ABC clearly thinks more of its "B----" than it does "Cougar Town," because it still hasn't announced a return date for that series, which has generated decent ratings and reviews over a couple of seasons.

It's not as if U.S. viewers haven't grown accustomed to hearing words once deemed un-utterable. Salty language has increasingly become a staple of TV dramas as broadcast networks find themselves having to vie with the likes of HBO, FX and AMC, which place fewer restrictions on content and dialogue.

But odds are "Don't Trust the B----" won't set the world on fire. Centered on a fish-out-of -water character who ends up rooming with a hellion in New York City, "B----" sounds a lot like CBS's "2 Broke Girls." And one wonders if ABC might be putting the program on the schedule as a favor to its production studio, 20th Century Fox, which also produces the network darling, "Modern Family."

ABC has shown an aversion to the B-word in the recent past. One drama, "Good Christian Belles," slated to debut sometime this spring and nominally replace the soon-to-end "Desperate Housewives," was originally called "Good Christian Bitches." Why is it OK to allude to "B----" with a sitcom that may debut to low expectations but not appropriate for a drama that many believe could do very well for the network?

The answer, of course, is marketing. Putting that word into the title of that sitcom will likely lend it more heft than anything else ABC has in its promotional arsenal. Just don't be surprised if the title ends up more memorable than the show itself could ever hope to be.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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