Fall TV season: ABC’s ambitious new schedule tries to ‘Man Up’ and strike a balance

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In unveiling ABC’s fall prime-time schedule, the network’s new entertainment president, Paul Lee, played keys of affection to describe his slate of 13 new shows, calling them: ‘super cool,’ ‘a power bloc of drama’ and ‘pure candy.’

But one more practical word stood out: balance.

‘What we have tried to do is get a nice balance -- stability for our established hits and real ambition for our new shows,’ Lee said Tuesday morning during a news conference at ABC’s New York headquarters, a few hours before he was scheduled to take the stage to pitch his schedule to hundreds of advertisers and influential advertising buyers.

Finding a balance has been something that has eluded the Walt Disney Co.-owned network in recent years. After soaring to great heights six years ago with such blockbuster dramas as ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ‘Desperate Housewives,’ and ‘Lost,’ ABC stumbled in its search for strong replacement dramas that appeal to both men and women.

Instead, the network has achieved ratings success with ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and the breakout comedy ‘Modern Family,’ and has made more modest gains with ‘The Middle,’ ‘Castle’ and ‘Body of Proof,’ starring Dana Delany as a medical examiner.


But advertisers have grumbled that the network, which will finish the current season in third place, was becoming a bit too female-centric. Nearly 65% of ABC’s prime-time audience are women.

So now, similar to the middle-aged vixens of ‘Desperate Housewives,’ fetching the men has become something of a priority for Lee. The 50-year-old British executive, who transformed Disney’s ABC Family cable channel, was picked last summer to run ABC Entertainment following the abrupt departure of former network programmer Stephen McPherson.

Tuesday, Lee rolled out 13 new programs, including a remake of ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ characterized by Lee as ‘pure candy;’ a 1960s-themed soapy yarn, ‘Pan Am,’ that promises ‘sexy entanglements’ between pilots and flight attendants; and a vividly drawn fantasy world, ‘Once Upon a Time,’ that seems tailor-made for an attraction at Disneyland. ‘Once Upon a Time’ features a beautiful 28-year-old bail bondswoman, Emma Swan, played by Jennifer Morrison (‘House, M.D.’) and her 10-year-old son, Henry, played by Jared Gilmore. Henry believes Emma is the missing daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. And yes, there is even a Disney-esque Evil Queen, played by Lana Parrilla, and Snow White, played by Ginnifer Goodwin (‘Big Love’). Robert Carlyle (‘The Full Monty’) is Rumplestiltskin.

Fantasy has become a recurring theme this week as the major broadcast networks give advertisers a peek at their new lineups. In times of recession and economic hardship, audiences crave fantasy, Lee said.

‘In challenging times, people turn to superheroes, they turn to monsters and a number of things,’ he said. ‘People are looking for pure entertainment, and television can provide that.’

ABC’s schedule, Lee said, ‘is a balance between comfort and escapism.’

However, he said, the network is not about to shy away from providing estrogen-heavy programming. ‘We are extremely proud to be a network that over-delivers and brings in the most affluent female audience,’ he said, noting that ‘Modern Family’ is ‘a deeply balanced show.’

Even his 18-year-old son watches ‘Modern Family,’ he said.

Several shows seek to attract men. In addition to ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ there is a new Tuesday night sitcom, ‘Last Man Standing,’ starring Tim Allen, who exhibited plenty of male appeal when he remodeled the ABC prime-time schedule 20 years ago with ‘Home Improvement.’ There is a also a comedy, appropriately named ‘Man Up,’ that is described as three modern men trying to get in touch with their ‘inner tough guys,’ including one who prefers his coffee with nondairy hazelnut creamer.

The network canceled the long-running drama ‘Brothers and Sisters,’ which was running out of steam in the ratings, to make room on Sunday night for ‘Pan Am,’ which is produced by Sony Pictures Television, which is contributing two shows to the lineup. (ABC also struck a balance here, as six of its 13 new shows are produced by the in-house ABC Studios, a priority of Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger).

Other new offerings include ‘Revenge,’ a drama about a young woman who seeks to right wrongs by destroying the people of a town in the Hamptons, and ‘Suburgatory,’ about a single father who moves his family from promiscuous New York City to the suburbs.

Midseason shows include ‘The River,’ what is being called a tense and action-packed scripted drama about a wildlife expert and TV personality who goes missing during a boat trip along the Amazon. His family attempts to find him as the cameras roll.

And, of course, there are a couple of cat-claw pleasers, including ‘Good Christian Belles,’ based on the book ‘Good Christian Bitches,’ by Kim Gatlin, about a former mean girl who returns to her home in the affluent and gossipy suburbs of Dallas. There is also ‘Apartment 23' (renamed from the working title of ‘The Bitch in Apartment 23.’)

The only thing that seemed missing from ABC’s schedule was a singing competition. When a reporter wanted to know why ABC wasn’t offering such a competition, Lee cheerfully asked: ‘Do you want me to start singing?’

ABC is hoping that the advertisers will be the ones doing that.


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-- Meg James