In Depth

Adalian Column: May, the Merry Month of TV Cliches

May is upfront season in the slave-to-the-cycle TV business. It might just as well be called the Month of Cliches.

This is the time of the year when executives declare, without any sense of irony, that the past nine months represented Our Best Development Season Ever. At least two network heads uttered those words publicly within the last few weeks, and I’m sure that by summer’s end, the other three broadcast chiefs will find a way to express similar sentiments.

May is also the month for needless, predictable ego clashes between executives who really should have better things to do with their time. Usually such dramas play out behind the scenes, with agents (and sometimes journalists) goading both sides to serve their own self-interest.

This year, the madness spilled out into public when NBC and CBS threw down over the future of “Medium.”

NBC made what, in my opinion, was a wise call to not overpay to keep a show that doesn’t have much potential upside anymore (ditto the call to say goodbye to “My Name Is Earl”). But it then stepped all over what was a good story by vocally bitch-slapping both “Medium” and “Earl” with intentional zingers that showed zero respect for the creators and talent associated with the shows.

CBS, unfortunately, didn’t behave much better. The company’s studio arm fired off a pointless statement blasting NBC for having the nerve to cancel “Medium,” and backed up its jabs with misleading ratings claims about other NBC shows. It’s one thing to defend the honor of your programming, but snarky press releases do not chivalry make.

Upfront cliches also dominate the actual sales presentations the networks make to advertising buyers.

The same three songs always tend to pop up in the video cut-downs networks use in their attempts to transform every new series into a “Hey, that looks good” winner. Coldplay tracks are perennials; Lady Gaga is a rising star. This year, I think I heard Kevin Rudolf’s “Let It Rock” half a dozen times—the marketing guys must have fallen in love with deep lyrics such as “I bring the fire/Make you come alive/take you higher.”

Puns and bad jokes also are common, though I won’t cite specific examples since I’m guilty of even lamer humor on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Network executives love to show their empathetic sides during their pitches to Madison Avenue. They can’t wait to announce just how much they’ve listened—to their viewers, their clients, their parents—in crafting new lineups.

Bill Clinton may have felt our pain, but this time of year, networks feel us all more deeply than we’d ever want to be felt. They’re not profit-hungry producers of mass entertainment; come May, they’re our TV Friends.

Of course, journalists are just as guilty of committing cliches during upfront season.

Rushing to be the first to declare a project “hot” or “dead” based on some agent’s self-serving spin becomes a sport among reporters, despite years of evidence that suggests such pre-season predictions have a disturbingly high rate of inaccuracy. Otherwise, Bradley Whitford would be celebrating the pickup of “Off Duty” right now while Fox’s “Ab Fab”“—”a lock,” one Web gossip insisted—would be prepping for production.

Those of us in the fourth estate (does anybody use that phrase anymore?) are fond of making our own grand pronouncements about the State of the Industry during upfront month. All this hyping of shows and selling of ads must mean something deeper, something more than just ... the hyping of shows and selling of ads. Right?

Maybe we’re envious of our colleagues who cover, you know, real news, but the Reporters Who Cover Television— myself included, much more than I care to admit—can’t help but extrapolate deep social trends and cultural leanings from the three dozen or so new shows ordered to series at this time each year.

We demand the right to draw conclusions about the State of the Union from the fact that the networks greenlit three medical dramas, or that there are a lot of family comedies and dramas headed to TV in the fall, or that Fox will have three big shows with African-Americans in leading roles. (In order: We’re a nation looking for happy endings, we want TV to be a surrogate family during a time of crisis, and it’s the beginning of the Obama Effect on pop culture.)

This is also the time for bold predictions based on scant evidence. Series are declared “promising” or “iffy” based on just a few minutes of tape. Schedules are judged “brilliant” or “a roll of the dice” within hours of their unveiling, even though recent history suggests the networks will make major changes to their lineups between now and September.

Thankfully, it is just television that we’re talking about here.

No blood will be shed as a result of the NBC-CBS sniping over the honor of Patricia Arquette. The republic will not crumble because a columnist for TVWeek wrongly intimated that a Bradley Whitford comedy looked likely to end up on NBC’s fall schedule.

But as the TV business begins to gear up for the start of yet another cycle, all of us who work in or around the industry probably would be wise to try to cut back on the cliches.

I know I plan to do just that—right after I finish writing next week’s blog post about the winners and losers of the 2009-10 season.