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ABC's new fall schedule tries to find the funny in tough network times

May 19, 2009 | 10:02 am

ABC has had a tough year in the ratings, but its programmers think they know the way back in to viewers' hearts: Comedies with such familiar stars as Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and Courteney Cox.

Disregarding the generally dismal environment for network comedies lately, the network will try in the fall to build a Wednesday comedy bloc made up of four new family sitcoms. Leading off the night will be “Hank,” with former “Frasier” star Grammer as a washed-up chief executive who reconnects with his brood. Heaton will follow with “The Middle,” about the foibles of a small-town mom.

The night will end with “Eastwick,” a one-hour series adaptation of the 1987 movie comedy “Witches of Eastwick,” which seems like nothing so much as an effort to duplicate the female-skewing success of ABC's top-rated scripted show, “Desperate Housewives.”

The hunt for laughs represents a major gamble for ABC, which has had trouble finding successors to aging shows such as “Housewives.”

The new comedy bloc “is our biggest risk, but I think [it has] our biggest upside as well,” ABC entertainment chief Steve McPherson told reporters today in New York, where the network revealed its fall lineup to advertisers as part of TV's “upfront” week.

But viewers had better be ready for some sharp mood swings. Elsewhere on the new schedule, ABC is going darker -– much darker. “The Forgotten,” booked for 10 p.m. Tuesdays after the “Dancing With the Stars” results show, is a bleak-looking forensics crime drama from producer Jerry Bruckheimer about a team of volunteer sleuths who try to solve murders of victims who are unidentified. Its competition will include Jay Leno's new nightly talk show on NBC.

ABC will lead off its crucial Thursday lineup -- which includes its once-formidable hit “Grey's Anatomy” -- with “Flash Forward,” a high-concept drama about what happens after millions of people black out simultaneously, allowing them to see their own futures. Judging from a brief clip shown to reporters, the show's tone and premise recall those of “The Nine,” another ambitious serialized drama that tanked quickly a few seasons back.

McPherson conceded that it was risky to open the night with a high-profile but untested drama. “This is a big decision,” he said.

But ABC's situation, battling with NBC to avoid a last-place finish among young adults, has left programmers with scarce programming assets and some hard choices. In the fall, new shows will kick off three midweek nights: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, yielding the least-buffered lineup of any major network. The 8 p.m. Tuesday entry will be “Shark Tank,” a new reality series about aspiring entrepreneurs from producer Mark Burnett.

To help make way for the new shows, ABC canceled “Samantha Who?,” the Christina Applegate comedy that never recovered from a disruption caused by the writers strike that ended in February 2008. “It launched very well and then it seemed to run out of steam,” McPherson said.

“According to Jim,” Jim Belushi's long-running family sitcom, is likewise gone. But the network feels it can find bigger audiences for “Castle,” the crime drama slotted for 10 p.m. Mondays. And the low-rated comedy “Better Off Ted” will return on Tuesdays paired with “Scrubs,” once “Dancing With the Stars” wraps its run. Meanwhile, “Ugly Betty” -- whose lagging ratings made it a candidate for the ax -- will move to the low-traffic zone of 9 p.m. Fridays. “You have to make some bold moves sometimes,” McPherson explained.

Whether the bold Wednesday move will pay off remains to be seen. The failure rate for network comedies in particular has been extraordinarily high lately. As it happens, Grammer and Heaton starred together in “Back to You,” a sitcom about TV newscasters that lasted only briefly a couple seasons back on Fox.

The other Wednesday comedies are “Modern Family,” with former “Married With Children” star Ed O'Neill leading an ensemble shot documentary-style a la “The Office” (in a sign of network confidence, ABC was planning to show the entire pilot to advertisers in a live presentation today) and “Cougar Town,” with Cox as a single mom struggling to adapt to the realities of middle age.

ABC also picked up several dramas slated for midseason launch. These include “The Deep End,” a wry look about the lives of associates at a snooty law firm, “Happy Town,” about strange goings-on in a Minnesota town and “V,” a series adaptation of NBC's sci-fi miniseries from 1983.

-- Scott Collins