TV Upfront

It's a Weeklong #ThrowbackThursday at the TV Upfronts

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ABC presented its new lineup for the 2017-18 season presented to advertisers at Lincoln Center on Tuesday. It includes a revival of the classic sitcom 'Roseanne.'
ABC presented its new lineup for the 2017-18 season presented to advertisers at Lincoln Center on Tuesday. It includes a revival of the classic sitcom 'Roseanne.'  Credit: ABC/Heidi Gutman

The whole TV upfront week was one big flashback.

There was a palpable sense of nostalgia as TV networks' presentations to advertisers reunited sitcom families from the '90s and picked up spin-offs based on their most popular shows. There was even a surprise Backstreet Boys performance thrown in for good measure.

At CBS's pitch on Wednesday afternoon, late-night host James Corden poked fun at the reboots. "This is like your own personal 'Groundhog Day,'" he said to the room of media buyers and marketers. "There must be an easier way to do this. Can't just play the tape from 2002?"

But like all reunions, there are the family members you hug fondly, the great-aunts you reluctantly let pinch your cheeks and the uncles you are sure to avoid.

In the "I'm genuinely happy to see you boat" is "Will & Grace." NBC re-introduced Will, Grace, Karen and Jack to the audience at Radio City Music Hall on Monday with a charming (while perhaps bordering-on-gushy) musical number. They appeared to have picked up where they left off over a decade ago, down to a complete lack of any evident aging since then.

NBC will bring back the comedy for a 12-episode run in the fall, and if it works, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt said the network might bring it back for more. But its success will also largely depend on how the gay jokes will play in 2017.

"Will & Grace," which began its nine-season run in 1998, has been credited with paving the way for gay characters on TV. But a lot has changed since the show ended in 2006, and there have been plenty of Jack-like characters since. His "jazz hands" may not seem as comical as they did a decade ago.

Then there's the buzzy reboot of "American Idol" on ABC. Like the annoying little cousin that follows you around that reunion, it seems there's no escaping the reality singing competition. ABC will resuscitate "Idol" just one season after it was canceled by Fox. No decision has been made on when it will return in 2018 or what nights it will air, but Katy Perry has been tapped as the lead judge.

ABC's decision has surprised some people. Fox CEO and chairman Dana Walden said during a press call on Monday that it is "too early" for a reboot. When Fox was evaluating whether to bring back the show itself so soon after its "farewell season," Walden said, the network decided it felt "extremely fraudulent" to do it this quickly.

ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey said its is a "perfect time" to bring the show back.

"What I love about it, personally, is that I feel it's about heartfelt, uplifting stories of people who make their dreams come true and, honestly, that's our sweet spot at ABC," she said on a call with press on Tuesday. "All of our alternative franchises deal in that. For me, that makes it feel like the perfect home at the perfect time."

When the show left the air it was averaging 11 million viewers, down from its peak of 30 million. For ABC, that potential 11 million live viewers is nothing to sneeze at. And aside from attracting a live audience, it also provides the entire Walt Disney company a platform for which to promote its other assets.

It's a whole other matter making the economics work. Dungey joked that TV is full of "red ink" and said that the budget is still a work in progress.

CBS CEO Les Moonves said during a press conference on Wednesday morning that the Eye Network chose to pass on the reboot of "Idol" because "the economics made no sense for us."

"The price was so expensive, you needed a 35 share to break even," he added -- more than a third of all TVs in use.

The big question is how much ABC will shake up the format to make "American Idol" feel more relevant than it did in its final seasons. Dungey promised it will feel "fresh."

"This is going to be ABC's version of 'American Idol,' so we are very excited," she said. "I think you guys will see when we unveil our version of the show that it is going to have a very clear ABC hallmark and brand on it at that point."

And then there's the family member you run screaming from. ABC's eight-episode revival of "Roseanne" will surely ignite plenty of controversy given Roseanne Barr's outspokenness on politics.

"The Conners' joys and struggles are as relevant -- and hilarious -- today as they were then," Dungey said. "There's really no one better to comment on our modern America than Roseanne."

But one of the most awkward moments of the upfront week came when the cast came rolling out on the couch of the show's set. Their interaction with each other was stilted.

"This is going to be fun," Barr chuckled.

Speaking of old ABC shows, there's even one coming back on another network: The CW, which is bringing back the 80's primetime soap "Dynasty."

But networks aren't just exhuming old shows. They're beefing up their schedules with spin-offs of some of their most popular series still on the air.

CBS will air a new comedy following nine-year-old Sheldon Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory," for example, as he starts high school in Texas. ABC will give another "Grey's Anatomy" spin-off a shot (remember "Private Practice"?), this one is set in a Seattle firehouse. It will also extend its "Bachelor" and "Dancing with the Stars" franchises.

And in the way of digging through the attic for some old gems, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel will even host a live special where current stars will act out classic sitcom scripts from the '70s, '80s and '90s.

If nothing else, the nods to the past signals that the desire for familiarity and safety is still strong -- among networks as much as viewers. Typically, these types of shows come with a built-in fan base who will at least sample the revival. They also don't necessarily require the same marketing push as a completely new concept.

The trend is a continuation from last year, when broadcasters aired nearly a dozen series based on old shows or movies. Fox brought back "Prison Break" and "The X-Files," introduced an update on "24" and debuted two shows based on movies, "Lethal Weapon" and "The Exorcist." CBS revived "MacGyver" and adapted the movie "Training Day." NBC aired "Taken," based on the Liam Neeson action trilogy. And The CW made a series out of the movie "Frequency."

But the networks proved that it's still hard to find an audience even with known properties. While "Lethal Weapon" and "MacGyver" did well for Fox and CBS, respectively, "The Exorcist" averaged just 1.9 million viewers and a 0.7 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic. "Training Day" pulled in 3.5 million viewers and a 0.5 rating.

"Training Day," "Taken" and "Frequency" were canceled. Fox has no plans to make more "24: Legacy" or "Prison Break" in the immediate future.

But the trend is a bit different this year: Now a couple of shows are back with their original casts, rather than just recycling brand names, said David Campanelli, exec VP-managing partner video investment, Horizon Media.

Call it the Netflix effect. The streaming platform has become a home to of fan favorites like "Gilmore Girls," "Full House" and "Arrested Development," which was renewed for a fifth season this week. For many, the draw isn't the concept of these shows -- it isn't about seeing new people talking fast and drinking coffee -- it's about reuniting with the characters they loved.

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