CBS's fall offerings pick up buyer buzz

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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 of new offerings, choosing to focus on stability as they duke it out for the top slot.

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

"CSI: New York" is expected to be the network's biggest breakout, 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.

Initiative Media's Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-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 airing "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."

Mixed Bag

Stephen McPherson, ABC's new president-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.

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 VP-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.

The WB's lineup is seen as stronger than past years, with more reality series scheduled, such as "Studio 7" and "Wannabes." The network, owned by Time Warner and Tribune, 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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