overthinking the idiot box

May 22, 2006

For the television afficionado, the Upfronts are more than just a sneak peek at the fall schedules for every network — they offer the observant a chance to better understand what the network thinks America wants to watch. What exactly that is? Leave it to SMRT-TV to tell you.

SMRT-TV Goes to the Upfronts!


Michael: I can't recall a time in recent memory when one of the Big Three networks made an upfront presentation that consisted of only four new series and four time slot changes. That's exactly what CBS did on May 17 when it introduced a fall schedule based on consistency and incredible stability, a schedule that virtually guarantees victory.

Interestingly, though, CBS begins the week in a potential position of weakness, with How I Met Your Mother in the Monday lead-off slot, a bit of a surprise considering that the sitcom's first-season numbers were mediocre at best. The network's only new comedy is up next: The Class, about a group of third-grade classmates who reunite twenty years later, comes from Friends co-creator David Crane. Early clips indicate that, much like Friends, the series will need some time to find each character's comedic voice. The rest of CBS's Monday night lineup returns intact. Two and a Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine will benefit from being the only sitcoms in the 9pm time period, and CSI: Miami should continue to dominate against NBC's Medium and ABC's inexplicably renewed What About Brian.

Tuesday sees the return of thriving military dramas NCIS and The Unit, followed by Smith, the network's latest attempt to attract viewers to a 10pm timeslot that has proven problematic ever since Judging Amy was unceremoniously dumped. Smith stars Ray Liotta as a thief who wants to complete a few more heists before he settles down to spend time with his wife and kids. The slick series, produced by John Wells (ER), appears to be a perfect fit in CBS's "Action Tuesday" lineup; it may be able to build enough initial interest to win the time period over NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

From what I've seen, Wednesday drama Jericho is certain to end up on critics' lists as one the fall's best new shows. The series delves into the titular town's reaction to a nearby nuclear explosion that leaves the residents isolated and scared. It's clearly CBS's answer to such high-concept shows as Lost and Invasion, and should be able to translate strong buzz into stronger ratings, though it feels more like a 10pm show than an 8pm one. Criminal Minds and CSI: NY remain in their current time periods and should be able to duplicate their success from this season.

Surrounded mostly by sitcom competition on the other networks, Survivor should have no trouble finishing first at 8pm, despite a downtick in ratings for recent editions. CSI, which could be taken down a peg or two by ABC's move of Grey's Anatomy, stays put, giving a boost to new legal drama Shark. James Woods is smug and unlikable (not in a forgivable, Gregory House kind of way) in his role as a fed-up defense attorney who goes to work for the D.A.'s office; his potentially off-putting performance and an overall sense of been-there-seen-that could keep Shark from becoming the hit that CBS needs it to be.

Fact: Cutting Hewitt's boobs out of any picture decreases her attractiveness by 85%. I used this exact caption last year, and it still makes me happy.
CBS keeps Friday as is, with Ghost Whisperer and Close to Home each returning for a second season, and Numb3rs capping off the night. Saturday, which consists of two crime-drama repeats and 48 Hours Mystery, also remains untouched, for better or worse. The biggest change comes on Sunday night, where the network has decided to get rid of its movie franchise in favor of the relocated Cold Case and Without a Trace. Neither show should have trouble maintaining hit status, though NBC's football coverage and ABC's competing dramas will likely siphon away some viewers. Perennial 60 Minutes continues to anchor the evening, leading into the latest installment of The Amazing Race, which will likely produce double-digit decreases from what Cold Case averaged in the 8pm hour. Any deficiency on Race's part may be overlooked as the procedural dramas should bring in a larger audience than the CBS Sunday Movie has this year.

Overall, CBS goes into the fall with a confident advantage over its competitors. Whereas the other networks will have to choose which of their new shows will get the bulk of the promotion, CBS has far fewer new shows to promote, allowing them to devote more time to each and giving all four shows a fair shot at premiering with strong numbers. With no reason to believe that any of their established hits will suddenly face calamitous audience dropoffs, a fifth straight season title seems about as close to a sure thing as you can get in TV.

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