The upfronts, as we noted with NBC the other day, are a great place for networks to brag to advertisers if they're number one in the ratings. But they're also a great place to brag if you're not number one in the ratings--because thanks to the magic of statistics, selective data, and subjectivity, you can always find something to be number one in!
ABC, set to finish last again in the advertiser demographics, gave a master class in that today. Programming executive Paul Lee spun so hard I'd be inclined to call him the Tasmanian Devil, were that not a Warner Bros. and not a Disney property. (With few hits to promote, ABC's presentation was heavy on clips of other Disney siblings, from ESPN to Toy Story to Star Wars. ABC: we may not be popular, but our parent owns other things that are!)
So we learned that ABC is the number-one rated network... for the last four weeks. It's the number-one rated network in something called "brand affinity." And it's number one, somehow, in "social connections." "We are the social network," Lee said. Viewers may not be watching ABC shows, but they're tweeting about them, with affinity!
Jimmy Kimmel, whose bite-the-hand standup is reliably one of the best things of any upfronts week, had a quick comeback: "We’re No. 1? Look, I don’t know what this 'brand' bullshit is, I don’t know what kind of 17-mile-long hand-drawn wire they spun that one in, but the ABC I work at is not No. 1."
When you're not number one, you take what you can get, though, and ABC hammered the "social network" angle through the presentation, reminiscing about the Oscars and Ellen DeGeneres' "selfie heard 'round the world." It's odd, then, that one of the network's fall sitcoms, Selfie--I'm serious--is a Pygmalion story about a woman whose addiction to social media leaves her with thousands of followers but no friends. It's a bit of a mixed message. Stop burying your face in Facebook, social-media slaves! But be sure to tweet about #Scandal!
The thing is, whether ABC's crop of new shows is good or bad, the network does have one thing to legitimately brag about. In what has turned out to be a good season (for a change) for casting and creative diversity, ABC has the most racially varied crop of new series out there. (Fox, which presented earlier this week, also did well on this front.)
Much thanks must go to Shonda Rhimes. An African American creator is now so successful her shows are ABC's entire Thursday night--Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and now How to Get Away With Murder, in which Viola Davis plays a hard-charging defense attorney and law professor. The growth of Scandal, and the booming career of star Kerry Washington, has shown broadcasters it's safe to put a woman of color in the lead of a drama (see also Nicole Beharie in Sleepy Hollow and Halle Berry in the upcoming Extant)
Beyond Shondaland, there are sitcoms about African American, Hispanic, and Asian American families: Anthony Anderson in Black-ish, about a dad who fears his kids are losing connection with their roots; Cristela, in which Latina comic Cristela Alonzo plays a law student living with her extended family; and Fresh off the Boat, based on the memoir by chef Eddie Huang. Maybe most ambitious is the midseason drama American Crime, from Twelve Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley, a multiracial ensemble drama about a murder case that says it will steer directly into issues of race in America. (It's hard to judge a drama from a trailer, but if nothing else it looks provocative and emotionally wrenching.)
If nothing else, it's a sign that TV executives--not unlike many of the advertisers they're pitching to--recognize that reflecting the colors and cultures of the audience is just good business. But ABC has a lot of holes to fill. If this new schedule doesn't do the job, they may need to come back next year with more new categories to be "number one" in.