ABC overhauls prime-time TV lineup
By Paul Thomasch
NEW YORK (Reuters) - ABC is betting on new comedies and veteran television stars in making over its 2009-10 prime-time schedule, which will feature 11 new shows next season.
The changes, announced at ABC on Tuesday, are the most dramatic yet by a broadcast network during this year's upfront, a period each spring when the networks set new prime-time schedules and advertisers pay billions of dollars for commercial time.
Competing broadcast network NBC also unveiled its new schedule on Tuesday, although it had already given a preview of its shows to the press and advertisers earlier in the month.
Still, NBC added some surprise to the day in renewing two shows thought to be at risk. The comedy "Chuck" will return after a sponsorship deal was struck with Subway restaurants, and "Law & Order" will return for its 20th season, tying it with "Gunsmoke" as the longest running drama series in prime time.
At Walt Disney Co's ABC, the talk centered more on new shows than returning ones. Executives decided to completely replace the prime-time lineup on Wednesday nights this fall, the sort of overhaul that networks sometimes attempt but often fail to pull off.
"Any time you launch even two new shows together it's a challenge," ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson told reporters on Tuesday. "But we think our chances are good."
"Hank" stars Kelsey Grammer -- who played the title role in NBC's "Frasier" for 11 seasons -- as an industry bigwig who loses his job.
"The Middle" tells the story of a suburban family and features Emmy-winner Patricia Heaton. "Modern Family" is another family comedy, but told in a documentary style, and "Cougar Town" stars Courteney Cox of "Friends" fame as a recently divorced single mother.
ABC will team the comedies up with "Eastwick," a drama based on the popular movie "The Witches of Eastwick" and the novel by John Updike.
ABC, along with NBC, CBS and Fox, needs new hits to fight the threat posed by iPods, video games and social networking sites -- fresher forms of entertainment that are gobbling up TV's audience.
The economy isn't helping. Media experts forecast ad sales to be down by around 15 percent during this year's upfront market. Last year, the broadcast networks brought in about $9.2 billion during the upfront period.
In addition to its Wednesday night lineup, ABC this fall is also betting heavily on "Flash Forward," which McPherson described as "the most buzzworthy show we have right now."
The show, which will air on Thursdays before the hospital dramas "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice," begins with a worldwide blackout that somehow gives people a glimpse into the future. From there, the characters struggle with knowing what's coming down the road.
Also in the fall, ABC will bring out dramas "Castle" and "The Forgotten" as well as "Shark Tank," a reality show that gives entrepreneurs a chance to get rich. Mark Burnett, the executive producer of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," is behind "Shark Tank."
At midseason, ABC will introduce "The Deep End," a legal drama; "Happy Town," a crime mystery set in Minnesota; and "V," a sprawling science fiction drama that the network describes as "a re-imagining of the 1980s miniseries." In it, aliens descend upon the world, and their seemingly friendly intentions begin to look more evil.
Fox, owned by News Corp, unveiled its schedule on Monday. CBS Corp's CBS will introduce its lineup on Wednesday. NBC is majority owned by General Electric Co.
(Reporting by Paul Thomasch; Editing by Derek Caney, Gary Hill)