Buyers: UPN 'Rocks,' Fox Laughs, All Nets In Best Position In Years

As the latest installment of "Star Wars" opened in the theaters across the country, Fox cast itself as the leader of the "rebel alliance" fighting "evil network empires" at its upfront presentation, but to listen to numerous media buyers and marketers Thursday, Viacom's UPN stole the show on the final day of the broadcast networks' 2005-06 prime-time schedule announcements with a new comedy produced by Chris Rock, "Everybody Hates Chris."

And with its comedy block on Thursdays beginning next fall, UPN plans to own that day on a weekly basis.

Based on the comedian's childhood experiences, a clip of the new series shown at UPN's upfront presentation Thursday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, drew exuberant laughter from attendees and raves later on in the day. The show details Rock's days growing up in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant and being bused to a mostly white junior high by his strict parents. In addition to his production duties, Rock will also narrate each episode.



"'Everybody Hates Chris' is possibly the funniest comedy of the fall schedule for anyone," said Shari Ann Brill, vice president-director of programming services at Carat USA. "It goes back to my theory that many of the best comedies come from the world of stand-up: 'Seinfeld,' Ray Romano, Kevin James, 'Roseanne.'"

Another veteran media buyer said, "To call this 'Wonder Years'-esque is insulting to 'Everybody Hates Chris.' This show is more akin to 'Seinfeld.' It's the strongest show that's been presented all week."

Aside from "Chris," UPN is also adding another comedy, "Love Inc.," starring Shannen Doherty as a dating service counselor, and one drama, "Sex, Lies & Secrets," with Denise Richards, about the romantic entanglements among a group of Hollywood hipsters, to its fall lineup. The Jennifer Lopez-produced drama "South Beach" is planned for midseason.

Later, at the New York City Center in midtown Manhattan, with only six weeks on the job, Peter Liguori, Fox's new entertainment president, introduced the five new dramas and two new comedies, with proceedings that emphasized the laughs.

"We have more comedies than any other network," Liguori said. "Maybe the other networks have given up on the genre and are waiting until the cycle comes around again. At Fox, we're not waiting."

The new comedies scheduled for fall debuts are: "The War At Home," starring Michael Rapaport as the paterfamilias in the Archie Bunker mode; and "Kitchen Confidential," which is based on the bizarre experiences of master chef Anthony Bourdain. Another new comedy, "The Loop," about a responsible college grad and his slacker friends, will launch in January.

Also coming back are the critically acclaimed "Arrested Development" on Mondays and the animated "The Family Guy" on Sundays, both of which elicited approval from the audience. Speaking about the latter's second revival, Liguori said, "We canceled 'The Family Guy' not once, but twice. Luckily, our audience is smarter than we are," a line which also drew a smattering of applause.

New dramas premiering this fall include: "Prison Break" (in order to free his innocent brother from death row, an engineer commits a crime, getting himself sentenced to the same prison where his brother is, as he plans to break them both out); "Bones (a forensic anthropologist helps solve crimes); "Head Cases" (Chris O'Donnell and Adam Goldberg star as attorneys dealing with mental illness while teaming to help underdog clients); "Reunion" (focusing on a group of friends over 20 years after one of them has been murdered, each episode is a year in the life of one friend); and "The Gate" (twisted crimes committed in San Francisco).

Aside from touting what the network hopes will be the new hits, Liguori also sought to impress the ad crowd by noting that his network is No. 1 among adults 18-49.

"But our goal to deliver more than audience, but loyal, attentive viewers," Liguori said. "The top 15 cable hours command 13.9 percent of high-duration, high frequency viewers. And we're the only network with two shows in the top five hours in terms of attention and loyalty - '24' at 61 percent and 'American Idol' at 49.2 percent," according to Nielsen Television Index's analysis of viewer engagement, Liguori said.

As media buyers noted afterward, and documented in Fox's upfront materials, Fox has a 4.2 rating and 11 household share from January to May in regular primetime, compared to CBS' 3.9/10.

"CBS is No. 1 in total viewers, and they're number one if you base it on regularly scheduled series," one media buyer said. "They all come out with their various numbers and it's sliced and diced all sorts of ways. It's the media buyers who decide who's really No. 1 at the end of the day."

And at the end of four days of major network upfront presentations, media buyers, for the most part, liked what they saw, more so than in the recent past, many said.

In particular, buyers praised what they considered a very well-rounded schedule of new and returning shows on Fox, which have been arrayed to take advantage of holes in the competition's scheduling. For one thing, Fox's schedule is set to change dramatically in January, with the return of "Idol," and the rejiggering of the much of the time slots as most networks will be relatively static. And as for the shows themselves, many cited the returning medical drama "House" (which will move to Mondays in January), "Reunion" (Thursdays after "The O.C.") and the "War at Home" (8:30 on Sundays, in between the animation block).

"I think Fox had a really good schedule and I really love what they're doing with Monday nights, with 'House' and '24'starting in January," said Billie Gold, associate director, programming services at Carat. "Monday seems pretty weak across the board for the networks and this could create a solid block for Fox. 'The War at Home' and 'Prison Break' both have good potential, especially with 'War at Home' being on Sunday, helping lead in 'Family Guy' opposite ABC's 'Desperate Housewives.' It's a good counter-programming move because it'll attract a lot of young men."

Gold's Carat colleague, Brill, added, "The changes that they're making is really sharp. They have that continuity through the fall, and then they make the changes in January. One of the best things they ever did was run '24' continuously. And 'Arrested Development' should do better on Monday, because the show's humor is subtle and sophisticated, whereas Sunday's comedy lineup is broader and real in-your-face. From a scheduling perspective and a fan's, there is a lot of really good programming in competitive time periods."

Buyers also said this week's showcase, along with the current broadcast season's growth, finds free TV in its best position in years.

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