TV Upfront

ABC Upfront Diary: Kiefer Sutherland Drama 'Designated Survivor' Receives Big Plug

But New Family Comedies Fall Flat

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Priyanka Chopra from 'Quantico' and Miles Brown from 'Black-ish' perform at ABC's upfront presentation on Tuesday.
Priyanka Chopra from 'Quantico' and Miles Brown from 'Black-ish' perform at ABC's upfront presentation on Tuesday. Credit: Courtesy ABC.

In perhaps the best indication of where ABC is headed, the alphabet network gave a big plug to its new Kiefer Sutherland drama "Designated Survivor" at its upfront presentation on Tuesday afternoon.

The series, about a cabinet member who becomes President after a terrorist attack, looks very different than a typical ABC series, and that's probably a good thing. The lengthy clip didn't include a salacious sex scene or a woman saving the day. It was measured, starting out quietly and building, leaving you surprisingly excited for the fall season -- something most of the new series on display this week have failed to do.

Mr. Sutherland took the stage to talk about the new drama, saying he hadn't wanted to return to TV full time until he read the script.

"I found myself on page 25 and I said, 'shit,'" he told the audience. "I realized I was potentially holding the next decade of my life in my hands."

Priyanka Chopra, the star of "Quantico," opened ABC's upfront presentation at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center with a big song-and-dance number set to Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk."

"It seems like everyone is inspired by 'Hamilton' this week," said Ben Sherwood, president, Disney/ABC TV Group, referring to a spoof of the hit Broadway musical by Jimmy Fallon during NBC Universal's presentation on Monday and a performance from two of the stars of "Hamilton" at ESPN's event on Tuesday morning.

"Stay tuned for 'Quantico the Musical,'" Mr. Sherwood joked.

Mr. Sherwood acknowledged the weakness ABC has experienced over the past year and promised to do better by focusing on the consumer, connecting with the audience and committing to great stories.

He then went into a soliloquy on why TV is better than digital, a sentiment that was echoed by ABC's head of ad sales, Geri Wang, when she described a new study from Accenture finding that TV is better than digital.

Channing Dungey was charming in her first upfront appearance as ABC's president of entertainment, three months after taking the role. Ms. Dungey said she was nervous to be on the stage, instead of in the audience, and told stories about her obsession with TV as a child.

ABC is joining the time-travel craze with its new drama, "Time After Time." But a clip of its eight-hour series "When We Rise," about gay rights, was perhaps the most powerful preview the network showed during the two-hour presentation.

ABC is leaning heavily into family comedies next season, but trailers of its new crop of sitcoms received few laughs from the audience. While you want to like "Speechless," a sitcom about a family with a special-needs child, it was hard to laugh. And the other three comedies -- "American House Wife," "Imaginary Mary" and Downward Dog" -- weren't much better.

Of course, Jimmy Kimmel was on hand for his usual upfront standup routine, which included poking fun at rival broadcasters, degrading the Digital Content NewFronts and rattling off the obligatory Donald Trump joke.

He described the upfronts as a "family reunion" and asked "Where is Uncle Paul?" -- referring to former entertainment president Paul Lee. "I hate to see anyone, especially a British person, lose his dental plan," he said. Mr. Kimmel's other cracks included:

  • "Do Crackle and Vox really need to have upfronts?" he said about the digital publishers. "These aren't networks. They're sound effects."
  • ABC is the most diverse network because "the other networks are horrible racists."
  • On Fox's decision to discontinue releasing live-plus-same-day ratings, Mr. Kimmel said, "Their arguments would carry more weight if they weren't in last place. It's like the Knicks announced they are no longer using the final score; it doesn't reflect the reality of the modern basketball game."
  • And on Arnold Schwarzenegger leading NBC's "The New Celebrity Apprentice": "Donald Trump is right, immigrants are taking our jobs, starting with him."

But the most important takeaway from the presentation came in a video of fun facts and stats before the event even began. Apparently it costs $2,100 to rent the "Bachelor" mansion for a night. The possibilities are endless.

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