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Upfronts Watch: ABC Seeks More Fantasies and Fairytales (But No Happy Endings)

ABC is sticking with lush fantasy, including a high-profile TV adaption of characters from The Avengers. Can its escapism get it to escape fourth place?

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Bob D'Amico / ABC

The cast of the new Joss Whedon drama, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD

ABC has had the benefit, over the past couple of seasons, of not having failures that are as spectacular as NBC’s. As Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur pointed out in March, while ABC has been battling NBC for last place among the four big networks, it’s NBC that has gotten most of the bad press. Part of it is the farther-to-fall effect: NBC has the narrative of descending from its glories of the ’80s and ’90s. NBC’s bombs have arguably been more calamitous (Do No Harm), or, if not that, more hotly hyped before collapsing (Smash). And that’s to say nothing of NBC’s bad press outside primetime–the self-immolation of the Today show, the fumbling of the Tonight Show a few years back.

So ABC has had to deal with less bad news (fittingly, Disney-ABC TV president Anne Sweeney began the upfront boasting about Jimmy Kimmel and Good Morning America’s ratings success). But you can’t pay the bills with not-bad-news. Its fall schedule announcement, then, is trying to make up for the network’s lack of new hits by returning to what’s worked for them in the recent past—escapist fantasies and heightened drama serials—and trying again to develop more comedy hits to match Modern Family.

The latter new shows come at the expense of Happy Endings, the rippingly funny ensemble show that never caught on beyond a cult audience. In a conference call today, ABC president Paul Lee said that that show, though loved by critics and a passionate fanbase, was just “too narrow” for a broadcast network to justify keeping.

The brand identity that has worked for ABC lately is family comedy on the one hand, and fantasy and emotion on the other–which applies not just to Once Upon a Time or Scandal but also to reality shows like The Bachelor. Which is also to say that ABC is the major network that above all knows that women watch the bulk of primetime network TV. (You know you are at ABC’s upfront and not NBC’s, Fox’s, or CBS’s because, when they play the sizzle reel of all their primetime shows, almost every scene features a female star or a really hot guy.)

Thus the reloaded fall schedule that Lee presented to advertisers Tuesday was heavy on fantasy, soap, families, and high-profile women. (I won’t even bother detailing all the midseason shows. ABC always announces a lot of programming at their upfront; last year it announced Mistresses, which does not debut until late this month.)

Among the new comedies ABC launches in the fall: The Goldbergs, an ’80s nostalgia family-com (if it does not involve a scene of someone watching ABC’s 1980s ’60s nostalgia show The Wonder Years, I am suing); Trophy Wife, starring Malin Ackerman as Bradley Cooper’s Whitford’s much-younger bride; Back in the Game, essentially The Bad News Bears with a single mom as the baseball coach; and Super Fun Night, a singles comedy that’s built around Aussie comedienne Rebel Wilson yet has her, inexplicably, playing American.

The first sign that ABC is sticking to its game in drama is that it’s spinning off Once Upon a Time into Once Upon a Time in Wonderland–whose eerie, surreal updated-Alice trailer for some reason intrigued me more than the original OUAT ever did. (Why not just call it Wonderland? Oddly, ABC had a great drama by that name in 2000—set in a psychiatric hospital, which also figures in this show as its Alice is told she’s insane for believing in another world.) Betrayal–a “limited series,” as Fox is experimenting with, to run 13 episodes–brings the suds with a story of a murder investigation complicated by a torrid affair. The biggest departure is serial Lucky 7, about Queens gas-station employees who win the lottery together. (Lee said the show is “about the 99%ers” but added that “it’s aspirational.” Which I guess means, “about blue-collar people but not depressing”?)

But the show I was most eager to see at ABC’s upfront–or any other this spring–was Joss Whedon’s takeoff on The Avengers, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Which I will probably start calling just S.H.I.E.L.D. and trust you not to mix it up with the FX cop show. I will probably drop all those damn periods. SHIELD it is!) And after seeing the trailer–admittedly too little to judge much–it’s still the show I’m most eager to see. If nothing else, I laughed at it more than any sitcom trailer I’ve seen this upfront. Likewise to Whedon’s introduction of the cast, whom, he said, “will soon have extraordinarily inappropriate fan-fic written about them.”

Whatever ABC’s particular problems, it also shares the challenges of every other big network: their audiences are shrinking as cable grows, and more of their remaining fans prefer to watch on DVRs (where they can skip ads) or online (for which advertisers have not been persuaded to pay as much money).

So like the other networks have, ABC argued to the assembled advertisers that it’s adapting to the new era, and making sure that it will still be able to deliver car and Dorito-flavored-taco ads in that brave new future. In that light, maybe the biggest announcement ABC made was not for any particular show but for its mobile app, which will start offering the option of streaming ABC shows live (right now, only in New York and Philadelphia, though there are plans to expand).

Giving fans the options to watch live TV on mobile like they want to seems a much better answer than suppressing it, as networks have tried to with the Aereo service. One way or another, the networks will have to figure out how to deliver shows on whatever devices you want to use. The question is whether they’ll still get advertisers to stream as much money back to them.