The annual spring ritual of unveiling the new fall TV season began Monday, with NBC attempting to convince advertisers that its new schedule will awe audiences enough to move the network from fourth to first in the Nielsen ratings race.
The meetings are called "upfront" presentations, referring to the summer sales season called the upfront market. But the networks may need to be upfront in the more traditional sense, and recognize the recessionary reality that is the driving dynamic not just for the networks, but for the viewers. The two didn't always connect last year, particularly when shows like ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money," "Big Shots" and "Cashmere Mafia," as well as NBC's "Lipstick Jungle," evoked excesses of the bubble economy rather than the coupon-clipping culture that burst onto the scene at about the time last fall's schedule started.
Nielsen - and NBC - noticed. And this year, the network is adjusting, at least in small ways. No, it hasn't brought back "Chico and the Man" or "Sanford and Son," which characterized and connected with working class sensibilities during the stagflation '70s. Instead, it will turn to Jay Leno, whose paycheck says Wall Street but persona says Gasoline Alley. He's currently on a "Comedy Stimulus Tour" of recession-wracked cities before beginning his new primetime show next fall.
As for scripted series, NBC renewed its most recent hit, "Heroes," the sci-fi saga about everyday people turned superheroes. But for next fall it mostly developed dramas about everyday heroes, like cops in "Southland," which sent ratings north when it premiered last month. And in new series "Mercy" and "Trauma," it's nurses and first-responders.
"We want to celebrate the working class that will be driving the American recovery," explained co-chairman of NBC Entertainment Ben Silverman in an interview on the set of "Saturday Night Live" after the presentation. "We're downstairs with the nurses of 'Mercy' and not upstairs with the doctors," he continued, reflecting the "Masterpiece Theater" dramatic device of "Upstairs Downstairs." "We're with the beat cops of 'Southland' and not with the homicide detectives."
Not that NBC is addressing hardship head-on, the way that made icons of working class Archie Bunker and earnest, honest John-Boy Walton.
"We can't do a Dust Bowl drama like 'The Waltons,'" said Silverman. "But we can do 'Parenthood,'" which he believes has a universality and accessibility that transcend these troubled times.
"Of course it has to take place in Berkeley," he said with a smile, referring to the cool California college town.
So it's not Walton's Mountain. But it's not Wall Street, either, which is a big shift from recent TV tonality.