ABC Promotes Wish-Fulfillment Even As It Celebrates It

Maybe it was the inspiration of coming off a successful season that produced the "largest season-to-season growth for any major network in 25 years" among the 18-to-49 demo, but the theme ABC struck for its 2005/2006 upfront presentation on Tuesday was "wish-fulfillment."

As ABC prepares to add two new comedies and three new dramas for the fall season--with three other new comedies, three new dramas, and one new alternative series for mid-season--the network offered a mix of programming that veered from surprisingly edgy, even considering that this is the home of "Desperate Housewives," to the sweetly touching.

After Jimmy Kimmel zapped audience members with his "Kimmel Kam," which he used to make fun of people using their cell phones and BlackBerrys before the presentation, which was held at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of The Disney Media Network and president of The Disney-ABC Television Group, took a few minutes to illustrate how much ABC had changed from, as Kimmel put it at last year's ABC upfront, "that fat kid who eats paste."

"Last year, I made you a promise that we would improve creatively, financially, and in our ratings," Sweeney said, before playing a clip of First Lady Laura Bush's reference to "Desperate Housewives" at the White House Correspondents Dinner recently. "Now, we're not only water cooler talk, we're White House Cooler talk."

She then pointed to stats that claim a 17 percent growth in viewers 18-49, as well as a large rise in upscale households tuning in to the network's programming.

"Steve [McPherson, president, ABC Entertainment] has done a wonderful job, and you'll see that with regard to last year--he was just getting started."

Noting that when he last addressed the upfront, McPherson was 29 days into his post at ABC, he told that audience that the secret to ABC's success was grounded in "creating great content, great characters, and great storytelling. Whether its 'Desperate Housewives' or "'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," whether it's the guilty pleasure or tear-jerker, our programs are about shared experience, about wish-fulfillment."

McPherson then went on to introduce the new programs: the new comedy series "Freddie," (Freddie Prinze, Jr., as a chef who finds himself living with his female relatives), and "Hot Properties," (put the "Desperate Housewives" in a sitcom and have them sell real estate), and dramas "Commander-in-Chief," (starring Geena Davis as the U.S. vice president who suddenly becomes President) "Invasion" (aliens arrive in Florida), and "The Night Stalker," (things go bump--and people get bumped off--in the Los Angeles night, from the producers of "The X-Files" ).

For mid-season, the three new comedies are "Crumbs," (Fred Savage, William Devane, and Jane Curtin make the Simpsons look like the Brady Bunch), "Emily's Reasons Why Not," (Heather Graham--from "Boogie Nights" and "Austin Powers 2"--keeps dating the wrong men) and "Sons & Daughters," (Lorne Michaels produced this intergenerational family sitcom). The three new mid-season dramas are "The Evidence," "In Justice," and "What About Brian."

The new mid-season alternative series is the unscripted "The Miracle Workers," in which top medical specialists help treat deserving people to the most revolutionary procedures.

In addition to the returning series that have already been announced, the new fall schedule will also see the return of "George Lopez," "Hope & Faith," "Rodney," "Supernanny," and "Wife Swap," with "The Bachelor," "Jake in Progress," and "Less than Perfect" to return mid-season.

For the most part, media buyers seemed to respond best to the dramatic offerings, particularly "Invasion" and "Night Stalker," and overwhelmingly gave the network high marks on the slate of new offerings and the way they were presented.

"The comedy genre still seems like the toughest one to click, but if the writing is good and consistent, what ABC showed us today has potential," said one veteran media buyer. "But I think audiences are really going to go for 'Invasion' and 'Night Stalker.' Those shows seemed to have a real edgy quality, more like what you'd see in a theatrical movie release than a TV show."

Another younger media buyer said that "it was well-presented, in that there was less selling from the network and more of, let's show you what we've got--you be the judge." The same buyer also felt that the mid-season replacements looked "stronger, in many cases, than some of the returning shows, particularly in the sitcom area."

Even Kimmel--whose late-night talk show still trails Leno and Letterman, but is cherished by many buyers for his harsh send-ups of network brass at the upfronts--was gentler than in the past, conceding the network's success had made it hard for him to continue to poke fun.

"The fat kid who eats paste has evolved and may even go to the prom--as long as he gets rid of that eye-patch," he said, using the metaphor for the network he has used in the past. "I can't believe that [the CBS action-adventure series] "J.A.G." was cancelled--wait! That wasn't even one of our shows, though it seems like it should have been. Ironically, we did put on a show about a blind cop that no one saw."

And as if to say that things aren't exactly smooth sailing for ABC, one media professional, noting that she liked the gory quality of "Invasion," wondered if the network might have trouble attracting advertisers to such a graphic adult series.

She cheekily suggested an imperfect sponsorship match: "Maybe Hamburger Helper?"