Monday, January 22, 2018
TV and Media

Networks working on season of laughs this fall

It's the same question I always ask, just after network TV's upfronts week; when we learn what shows were canceled, picked up or hung out to dry (hint: everything airing on low-rated Fridays).

But my query remains: What just happened?

There's always the usual ratio of well-meaning failures (ABC's Pan Am, CBS's A Gifted Man), out-of-their-misery cancellations (NBC's Are You There Chelsea) and no-brainer new shows (brilliant Office alum Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project on Fox). And there's always a few head-scratchers. Another Matthew Perry sitcom (NBC's Go On)?

Still, there are some trends worth dissecting. Here's my short list of What I Learned from the Upfronts:

Comedy will be king (and queen), at least for another year. Thanks to Modern Family and Fox's New Girl, the Big Four TV networks picked up a total 17 new comedies for next season. Fox paired Kaling's show with Zooey Deschanel's New Girl; CBS moved Two and a Half Men to Thursdays behind Big Bang Theory and NBC created comedy blocks from Tuesday through to Friday. (My question: Can the network that saved Whitney be trusted with four nights of comedy?)

Everything old is new again, but no one admits it. In November, ABC will bring back Tim Allen's Last Man Standing on Fridays with Reba McEntire's new sitcom Malibu Country; a pairing that feels a lot like the network's old T.G.I.F. family comedy lineup. Similarly, Big Bang and Men could help CBS create a slight echo of NBC's mighty Must-See TV lineup Thursdays.

Social media remains an important talking point. Every network talked up social media to keep shows in touch with fans and avoid looking stodgy. ABC entertainment head Paul Lee noted, "There is no show now that doesn't have a massive social media component, even before we launch it…(it) gives us a critical insight into the show."

That may help explain why a viewer-challenged series such as Community, with strong online followings, survived NBC's cut.

Not all new technology is welcome. Nearly every network executive criticized Dish Network's new Auto Hop feature allowing its digital video recorders to automatically skip commercials without fast forwarding. NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert called it "an attack" on network TV's business; CBS TV president Les Mooves said it was "illegal." Network executives earn money from DVR ratings by insisting viewers still get some exposure to commercials because they must fast forward past them. Dish's feature removes that pretense; expect a lawsuit before the dust clears.

On screen diversity jumps a little bit. So far, there are two new network TV shows next season where a non-white actor is the sole star: The Mindy Project with Kaling, who is of Indian descent, and NBC's Infamous, a midseason show starring The Game alum Meagan Good, who is black. Elsewhere, actors of color appear in co-starring roles: Andre Braugher on ABC's Last Resort, Anthony Anderson among three dads on NBC's Guys with Kids and Lucy Liu as a new school Dr. Watson on CBS' Sherlock Holmes remake, Elementary.

Just 27 years after Bill Cosby led one TV's most successful comedies ever, the glass ceiling is finally splintering.

No wonder network TV so often resembles a look back at the future.

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