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ABC Dances Down Madison Avenue

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ANDREW ECCLES / ABC

The upfronts are a song and dance routine. At ABC’s presentation at Lincoln Center today, for instance, network execs noted that while ABC is not actually the number one network, they are the number one network in "upscale audiences," however they define the term. (Said Jimmy Kimmel during a mid-upfront monologue: "It sounds a lot better than, ‘We’re number one among a__holes.’")

But then there’s the actual, literal song and dance. For instance, ABC hired Mary J. Blige to perform U2′s "One," evidently to underscore the powerful spiritual message that ABC is the number one network for rich people. Bono would have been proud. Then there was Boston Legal’s William Shatner, who golden-throatedly burbled out a gender-reversed version of Broadway standard "Beautiful Girls," to celebrate the men of ABC. (The way-inside joke was, last year, Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry stole the show by belting out the song, in full top hat and tails, to the gals of Wisteria Lane.)

The capper, though, came when ABC programming chief Steve McPherson, in payment of a bet lost to Kimmel about who would win Dancing with the Stars, took the stage to do a torrid cha-cha with a professional dancer, to an AC/DC medley. Amazingly spry for a suit, McPherson whipped off his coat and executed several picture-perfect (at least from the second balcony) spins as his partner whirled around him.

Something tells me the chairman of Ford never has to do this at the shareholders’ meetings.

But you’ll hoof it as much as you have to to sell ads in a challenging media environment, with ads devalued by DVRs and consumers distracted by the Internet and MP3 players. This past year, the networks have tried to raise cash selling shows online, but there’s still no substitute for good old-fashioned begging for commercials.

Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC television group, reminded the ad executives in the crowd, for instance, that "Lost is only possible on iTunes because it is popular on TV." In other words: there may be no ads on iTunes, but your money is still good enough for us! And the execs pitched, in complete seriousness, something called the M: IV Consumer Optimizer, some kind of exclusive marketing tool to match advertisers with the shows right for their target audience. "It’s like J-Date," explained Kimmel.

As posted earlier, ABC previewed six dramas and six comedies alike for the advertisers, and while it’s tough to judge them by the clip reels, it’s encouraging that, so far this upfront, the networks seem to be avoiding formulas–or, at least, they’re relying on new formulas. Each of ABC’s new sitcoms, including "Betty the Ugly," a remake of Spanish-language telenovela Betty La Fea, is a single-camera show, shot like a movie with one camera rather than with several on a set before a studio audience.

And like NBC’s dramas, ABC’s avoided the kind of procedural cop dramas that have smothered the airwaves for the past several years, in favor of serial stories, high-concept hooks, relationship dramas and the occasional slightly original idea. In Brothers & Sisters, Calista Flockhart plays a still-very-skinny radio host dealing with a family crisis. In Men in Trees, Anne Heche is a relationship expert who moves to an Alaskan town full of available men after her own engagement breaks up. Nine strangers are bonded after being taken hostage in a bank robbery; in Six Degrees, six strangers–I see a trend!–are bonded by random connections. The most egregious concept ripoff belongs to Day Break, a thriller in which Taye Diggs is forced to live the same day over and over, and the audience is forced to relive the concept of Groundhog Day, over and over.

The biggest news, though, had to do with returning shows. Grey’s Anatomy is moving to Thursdays at 9, to do battle with CSI and NBC’s new Studio 60 (which may well head for a safer time slot before fall). Lost will deal with rerun complaints by running a string of original episodes in the fall, going on hiatus until January or February, then running all originals until May.

And, of course, Rosie O’Donnell joins The View in September, but for some reason ABC couldn’t get her to show up. Which is a shame. Because she totally would have danced. 

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