Upfronts 2013: ABC counting on 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' for next season
Every year at upfront time, ABC seems to be in the same situation, doing the same things. They're a network with a number of genuine hits ("Modern Family," "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal"), and yet that struggles in the overall ratings (this season, they'll again finish fourth among adults 18-49). And each year they respond with a ton of high-concept new series — next season will feature a dozen new sitcoms and dramas, including "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and the "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" spin-off — that will be placed into problematic timeslots and/or left to fend for themselves.
So "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." — which resurrects and spins off Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson character from "Avengers" and several other Marvel films — gets placed on Tuesdays at 8, against the most-watched drama on all of television in "NCIS." So "Wonderland" — set in Victorian London and starring Sophie Lowe as Alice and John Lithgow as the voice of the White Rabbit — winds up on Thursdays at 8, where ABC has struggled for decades.
As usual, ABC president Paul Lee had his buzzwords at the ready, describing the Tuesday lineup as "a power pack(*) of four-quadrant crowd-pleasers." And, like his FOX counterpart Kevin Reilly, he suggested that ABC will be trying to schedule non-traditionally, splitting most of its drama seasons into 11 or 12-episode blocks to air consecutively in fall and spring, with a "bridge" series in between to avoid reruns. Of course, that strategy didn't work out so well for NBC's "Revolution," which seemed like a big hit in the fall, went away for months and is limping to the end of its season, good enough for renewal but not enough to stay after "The Voice."
(*) Does this mean he's planning another Marvel adaptation already?
Lee also dismissed questions about new sitcoms like "Super Fun Night" (with "Pitch Perfect" star Rebel Wilson) and "Mixology" (whose whole season takes place during one night at a bar) as being off-brand for the network, even though he just canceled the somewhat similar "Happy Endings." (As always with such questions, Lee claimed that "Happy Endings" was on-brand for ABC, but "just too narrow," while these "are much broader shows." A year from now, when one or both of the newbies has failed, Lee will explain that they were too narrow, but his new hip urban sitcoms will be four-quadrant power packs.
Fienberg has the full ABC schedule (which does not feature "Suburgatory," as that's being held for mid-season), and I have more detailed thoughts night-by-night:
MONDAY: Status quo in one sense, in that "Dancing with the Stars" returns at 8 and "Castle" at 10, but a big shakeup in that this will be the only night of the week "Dancing" airs next season, with the results being collapsed into the regular performance show. "Dancing" remains a widely-watched show, but also one where the great bulk of the audience is over 50 (and therefore not of interest to the advertisers who pay ABC), so its footprint on the schedule has been reduced.
TUESDAY: Lee believes in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." so much that he's not only launching it against "NCIS" — "We don't necessarily think that audience is the same as 'NCIS,'" he argued — but using it to launch an entirely new night of programming, leading into sitcoms "The Goldbergs" (an '80s family comedy starring Wendi McClendon-Covey and Jeff Garlin) and "Trophy Wife" (starring Malin Akerman in the title role and Bradley Whitford as her wealthy husband) and then new drama "Lucky 7," about a group of gas station employees who win the lottery together.
On the one hand, "S.H.I.E.L.D." — co-created by "Avengers" director Joss Whedon, along with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen — has the Marvel brand name and associations with "Avengers." On the other, the ratings track record for superhero TV shows isn't nearly as good as the box office for superhero movies, and this is really a superhero-adjacent series built around a supporting character from that movie everyone loved. Gregg is great, and Whedon knows this material brilliantly, but on TV Whedon's shows have been cult successes, and not the kind of mass-appeal hit Lee believes (and needs) "S.H.I.E.L.D" to be.
Lee also loves "The Goldbergs" a lot, but a year ago he placed "Happy Endings" and "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23" in this hour, opposite comedies on FOX and NBC, creating a six-sitcom pile-up that only "New Girl" and "The Mindy Project" were able to survive. They'll be back in the hour in the fall, and NBC's "About a Boy" and "The Family Guide" will be joining them at mid-season. And "Lucky 7" has the same premise as NBC's short-lived lottery drama "Windfall."
WEDNESDAY: Pretty standard scheduling here: "The Middle," "Modern Family" and "Nashville" return in their current timeslots, flanking new comedies "Back in the Game" (James Caan as an ex-ballplayer whose adult daughter and grandson move in with him) and "Super Fun Night." The latter was actually developed at CBS, then dropped, then picked up by ABC, and reports are that it's being retooled. Basically, ABC wants to have Rebel Wilson under contract, and if the show eventually works, so much the better!
THURSDAY: "Grey's" and "Scandal" return at 9 and 10, as you'd expect. "Wonderland" was originally planned as the bridge show for the mid-season hiatus of "Once Upon a Time," but Lee insists, "We watched the pilot and we fell in love with it." Hence it lands in the cursed timeslot that in the 21st century alone has been home to these one-season wonders: "Zero Hour," "Last Resort," "Charlie's Angels," "The Deep End," "FlashForward," "Threat Matrix" and "Dinotopia." ("Ugly Betty" was the lone scripted success here, and then only for a season; it limped along for three more to diminishing returns.) Given the diminishment of the parent show's ratings this spring, is now the moment to try a spin-off in a cursed time period?
FRIDAY: Most of the night — "Last Man Standing," "Shark Tank" and "20/20" — returns intact, with "The Neighbors" (the only freshman ABC comedy to be renewed) replacing the canceled "Malibu Country" at 8:30.
SATURDAY: College football in the fall, movies in the spring, like usual.
SUNDAY: "America's Funniest Home Videos," "Once Upon a Time" and "Revenge" (with a new showrunner after the exit of creator Mike Kelly) are back in their current timeslots, leading into "Betrayal," a soapy drama that Lee envisions as a 13-episode miniseries that could return each season for a limited run in success. At mid-season, it'll be replaced by "Resurrection," a high-concept series about people returning from the dead to a small Missouri town. Given that "Once" and "Revenge" are both envisioned as series taking that long winter break, this could be another night dominated by freshman series for a good chunk of the season.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com