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ABC may not be as uncool as other networks, but it's still pretty uncool

ABC was boosted by the success of How To Get Away With Murder in the fall.
ABC was boosted by the success of How To Get Away With Murder in the fall.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

ABC's upfront presentation — at which the network tried to sell ad buyers on the virtues of its 2015 fall schedule — is best summarized in two moments.

In the first, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel mocked NBC's decision to produce movies based on the songs of Dolly Parton, which he sarcastically quipped was a great way for the network to court urban audiences. In the second, ABC hauled out Montell Jordan to perform his famous hit "This Is How We Do It," complete with new lyrics written specifically about ABC, while stars from many of the network's shows danced awkwardly on stage.

Update: Video of this blessed event has surfaced. Watch it before ABC becomes aware it exists and banishes all traces of it.

The message was clear: ABC might not be uncool in the same way as other networks, but it's still pretty uncool. If NBC is trying to force the nation to travel back in time to 1981, ABC has at least advanced to the mid-'90s. But it's still stuck there, hoping that awkwardly shoehorning the word Black-ish into a Montell Jordan song will buy it some cachet ... only to realize that, no, it probably won't.

Still, of all networks participating in upfronts week, ABC has more to celebrate than most, and its fall 2015 schedule looks pretty good. If you just want to glance at said schedule, click here. But if you're looking for a deeper analysis of its prospects, here are five thoughts about the network's lineup.

1) ABC gets to brag as much as it wants

Before Fox's Empire became the big new hit of the 2014-'15 season, ABC's How to Get Away With Murder and Black-ish were the season's success stories. And after spending years in last place, the network posted the most ratings growth out of the big four, which put it in third. That may not sound like much, but it's impressive in the increasingly ossifying world of network television.

The most impressive feat of all, however, is that ABC renewed eight new freshman shows. Yes, it canceled a few, just like every other network, but it's also on a surprisingly strong hot streak, especially when it comes to comedy. Both Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat launched strong, then held their own, and their DVR and streaming numbers are good. ABC's fall schedule boasts three nights (Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday) that will be exactly the same from fall to fall, in marked contrast to the much less stable NBC and Fox.

ABC also claims to be "number one in entertainment programming." Now, what that means is that the network is number one when you factor out sports (and likely reality shows), which isn't really fair — it's not like sports don't exist. But ABC is hamstrung by a corporate strategy that seems designed to keep sports on ESPN and off of its airwaves (more on this in a moment), so the self-justification makes sense. It's still a little disingenuous.

2) If you have to be owned by a corporation, Disney's not a bad one to be owned by

So many of ABC's programs — and rumored programs — stem from other parts of the Disney corporate family. Once Upon a Time has turned into a Disney princess clearinghouse. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter are ways for ABC to lay claim to a tiny sliver of the Marvel universe. And now the network has The Muppets coming in the fall, allowing it to capitalize on yet another set of Disney-owned characters. Pixar produces occasional holiday specials starring the Toy Story characters for the network. Rumors of a Star Wars show have circulated for years — and it seems as if it will happen sooner or later.

What's been interesting about all of this corporate synergy is that ABC seems to accept it as taking one for the team. The future of television is probably about corporations creating programs whose profits they can maximize, and if that's the case, then ABC suggests that future has already arrived and that it's doing just fine.

The network's Marvel shows, for instance, are not terribly successful when looked at in terms of their live ratings. But add in the viewers who catch up with them later, and they start to look more appealing. Then consider how the shows advance the overall branding mission of ABC's corporate cousin, and you start to see why they're still on the air. It's not that ratings are irrelevant; it's that other qualities can sometimes trump them.

Oh, and the new Muppet show looks pretty funny. So corporate synergy might work out for all of us, in the end.

3) But you know what would be nice? Some sports

ABC's "number one in entertainment programming" brag is a dodge, because you'd better believe if the network could get its hands on an NFL package for a cost-effective rate, it would do so. Football is one of the chief things propping up NBC's primetime ratings, and it gives both CBS and Fox a powerful promotional platform. Without it, ABC is always dependent on whatever else it can scrounge up. (Fortunately, the network has one of the best marketing teams in the business.)

This is the biggest drawback of being a part of Disney. Disney appears to have decided that ESPN, which it also owns, is where the sports go, and even though ABC airs a handful of sporting events per season (like college basketball and its limited NBA package), it simply can't compete with its massively successful sibling over on cable. As sports become more and more important to network viewership numbers, ABC could wind up constantly scrambling to lure in every viewer it can find.

ABC's solution appears to be to brand itself as strongly as possible, which has seen some success. But "branding" only works as long as the shows are consistently good, and ABC is bound to hit a cold streak eventually.

4) Somebody at ABC really does care about diversity

ABC President Paul Lee joked before introducing The Muppets that he really does care about bringing diverse representation to his network. But he earned that joke by really, truly caring about bringing diverse representation to his network — or, at the very least, by not shutting out whoever on his executive team is interested in doing so. Lots of networks pay lip service to this idea; ABC appears to actually be doing something about it.

ABC's new fall series' leads include famed Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra and Korean-American Ken Jeong. The network has a series about a gay teenager coming up at midseason. It will also add a remake of the old movie Uncle Buck featuring an all-black cast. (Lee, however, doesn't seem to understand the reasons people might cringe about a black character named "Buck," so two steps forward and all that.)

Like every other network, ABC has a long way to go on the diversity front, and some of the shows listed above will probably be awful. (I'm betting on the Ken Jeong–fronted comedy, which looked painful in its trailer.) But at least ABC isn't running away from its successes in this arena last year.

5) ABC hates reruns and loves anthologies

Like Fox, ABC hates reruns. Unlike Fox, it actually invented the strategy that the networks are increasingly glomming onto to carry themselves through rerun season. It airs its big hit shows in two batches of episodes — one fall and one spring — and then airs a short-order series in the gap between the two batches.

ABC's solution to finding good short-order programs (which has bedeviled it in the past) is increasingly to air anthology miniseries, which tell new stories (sometimes with new casts) with each new season. (Think True Detective, American Horror Story, or Fargo.) That way, if one of them flops, it's just off the air, with very little damage done to the wider schedule. And when one succeeds — like its modest Sunday-night hit Secrets and Lies — it can promote the show's return the next year almost as a new show, because that's what it is.

ABC renewed both of its anthology miniseries, Secrets and Lies and American Crime, for second seasons. It also picked up Of Kings and Prophets, a miniseries about King David (that could presumably adapt other Bible stories if it becomes a hit), and Wicked City, a dark, noirish take on the Los Angeles criminal world. The network has even turned Agent Carter into a pseudo spin on this idea, sending the character into a new setting (Hollywood) for season two.

Of all the broadcast networks, ABC seems most enamored of the idea of this new TV subgenre. Though American Crime's ratings suffered, it will probably land some Emmy nominations, and Secrets and Lies was a modest success, building in the ratings each week. The 2015-'16 season will be where ABC finds out whether it can build on this foundation — or if this is just another stopgap measure that's doomed to fail.

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