The broadcast network upfront fall-season presentations, held last week across midtown Manhattan, unfold annually in front of TV’s most desirable (and toughest) audience–namely, the assembled advertisers, who generally have seen it all and bought most of it.
A tone alternating between cynical good humor and earnest proclamations about the can’t-miss prospects for new programs generally pervades these gatherings, and this year was no exception.
“The reality is that you buy GRPs [gross rating points] and allocate shows later,” one veteran advertising executive said in a burst of candor. “It doesn’t matter what’s on.”
This year’s upfront rituals were held at venues that ranged from tony Carnegie Hall (CBS) to the steel-gray deck of an aircraft carrier (Fox) and included Madison Square Garden (UPN) and Radio City Music Hall (NBC).
The glitzy, celebrity-saturated presentations generally ran about two to 21/2 hours per network. What Madison Avenue’s finest learned was that this new season will mean dramas, dramas, dramas, except at Fox, which is betting heavily on half-hour comedies, and The WB, which promises that this will be the year that it, too, finally grabs the viewer by the funny bone.
Not surprisingly, reality and game shows are proliferating, with “The Runner” (ABC midseason), “The Amazing Race” (CBS), “Manhunt” (UPN this summer), “Lost in the USA” (alternating with fellow reality series “No Boundaries” in a WB wheel) and “Elimidate Deluxe” (WB) crowding the airwaves, along with new editions of “The Mole” (ABC), “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” (ABC), “Survivor” (CBS), “Temptation Island” (Fox), “The Weakest Link” (NBC) and “Popstars” (The WB).
As for the upfront itself, it promises to be unusually long and drawn out, as more than one network sales executive pointed out. “We’ll be ready to talk to you in the next few days,” Jon Nesvig, Fox Broadcasting’s sales president, said to the advertisers at the end of the network’s upfront-ending presentation on the deck of the Intrepid, adding after a beat, “[or] weeks, months.”
Of course, the networks deployed shtick and humor to throw jibes and missiles at each other–literally in the case of Fox, which began its presentation with a video in which Mr. Nesvig was a portrayed as a top-gun fighter pilot blasting the competition out of the sky (and getting hit by an NBC missile labeled “XFL” that dinged harmlessly off his jet’s fuselage–one of several XFL jokes that spiced up the various upfront presentations). Other shtick that made the advertisers laugh (or wince):
* Ellen DeGeneres’ reminiscence of visiting Les Moonves’ CBS office, done up, she said, in “Survivor” decor, only to discover Bette Midler there, putting out her own Tiki torch.
* Dean Valentine’s recounting, over throbbing “Mission: Impossible” music, of how he and his sidekick, UPN’s deadpan sales executive Michael Mandelker, had sneaked onto the Warner Bros. lot and stolen “Buffy”–complete with casket.
* Jeff Zucker’s mock-dramatic unveiling of the new NBC schedule checkerboard, which turned out to consist entirely of “The Weakest Link,” “Today” and “Dateline.”
* The WB’s Jordan Levin popping up as a gyrating backup dancer in the middle of a song by Eden’s Crush, the network’s “Popstars” girl group.
* Former “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander, appearing in the guise of ABC’s sanctimonious self-help pitchman Bob Patterson and explaining to the advertisers that “hype” is really an acronym that stands for hope you purchase everything.
* “Will & Grace” stars Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes assuring the advertisers that, because “eight out of 10 Americans are gay,” NBC’s “The West Wing” would be renamed “The West Village.”
* The CNBC reporter who opened the Pax presentation explaining how the network, which goes for “inspirational,” feel-good programming, had entered into a “strategic alliance” with Victoria’s Secret to produce the It’s a Miracle bra, and that Pax soon would be airing an “edited” version of “The Sopranos”–which would run from 8 p.m. to exactly 8:03 p.m.
Later, Pax, which promises programming free of “foul” language and sex, offered a “research” chart to “prove” that Pax viewers require less Prozac than audiences that tune in to the other networks.
Of course, each network engaged in prodigious chest-thumping, purporting to prove with charts, data and statistics that it was No. 1–if only with some heretofore unknown demographic.
A network-by-network summary in alphabetical order of the week’s points, counterpoints and facts follows:
The facts: Two new comedies, three new dramas. Thursday and Saturday return intact.
The themes: Power marketing (ABC Unlimited’s rallying cry is “Rise Above, Think Beyond”); aggressive promotion (ABC Entertainment Television Group Co-Chairman Stuart Bloomberg threatened to “go door to door” in search of elusive young viewers on Friday night for the lineup of “The Mole,” “Thieves” and “Once and Again”); Steven Bochco (whose new “Philly” forced the relocation of “NYPD Blue,” which will have to compete with NBC’s ever-popular “Law & Order” at 10 p.m. Wednesdays); and male-driven sitcoms (Jim Belushi joins the Wednesday comedy block as “The Dad”).
Not the same old, same old irony: ABC News President David Westin, whose division, like all of Disney’s properties, is being downsized, and who lost the battle to keep “20/20” and Barbara Walters on Friday–or on the air at all through November and December–said, “All in all, this has been a pretty good year. … We know who we are. We know where we’re going.” In addition, while Ms. Walters, et al., will not be seen on Fridays, former overnight-news anchor and correspondent Anderson Cooper, now the host of “The Mole,” will be.
The `Dharma’ karma: Co-Chairman Lloyd Braun on “Dharma & Greg” star Jenna Elfman: “She is a true television personality, and that is what television is all about.”
The moment of `Bob Patterson’ truth: In a sometimes tedious, sometimes comic bit, Jason Alexander tried out his new sitcom character, a glib inspirational guru. (“In almost every way, perception is more important than performance.”)
The taunt: “Whose Line Is It Anyway” funnyman Colin Mochrie, flanked by Drew Carey and Wayne Brady (the latter of whom will headline a summer variety series), pointed out one way his improv ensemble beats the competition on NBC. “We have one more black person than `Friends.”’
The star quality: Mr. Bloomberg, whose soul patch-style facial hair occasionally takes on a life of its own, and Mr. Braun are no Abbott and Costello (who will be the subjects of an ABC biopic next season).
The show must go on and on: Running time was about two hours, two minutes. `”Course, they told us we were going to talk 10 minutes ago,” said big-screen producer James Cameron, bringing up the rear with a plug for “Ocean Challenge,” his slate of Discovery-like undersea specials with oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau.
The facts: Two new comedies, three new dramas, one new reality series. Only Monday returns intact.
The themes: Change (Saturday night will be “Touched by an Angel”); new male appeal (men are the pivotal characters in all five new dramas, and Daniel Stern stars in “American Wreck”); getting hipper (CBS hopes “Wolf Lake” will do for the network what “The X-Files” did for Fox and “Buffy” did for The WB); trashing the competition; and, of course, “Survivor.” (Even the promising-looking “The Amazing Race” is described as “ `Survivor’ on speed.”)
The synergy: While ABC and Fox displayed the logos from their extended corporate family, CBS ordered a CBS edition of MTV’s signature show “Total Request Live” in which one of host Carson Daly’s palpitating fans gives a shout out to “Everybody Loves Raymond” mom Doris Roberts.
The star/`Survivor’/Barnum power: The presentation opened with a take-off on “Behind the Music” in which Leslie Moonves took credit for the creation of “Survivor,” chowed down on peacock, joked about
the size of Richard Hatch’s penis and cast Viacom boss Mel Karmazin in a comic cameo. Even Ellen DeGeneres worked “Survivor” into the diary she kept through the long development of “The Ellen Show,” which has the challenge of leading off Friday nights. The big and warmly received surprise, however, was the on-stage reunion of the “Survivor II” cast and a rocking performance of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. Entertainment President Nancy Tellem shared the stage, if not the zingers.
The taunts: “Student by day, CIA [agent] by night. I don’t know,” cracked Mr. Moonves, referring to ABC’s “Alias.” The main character of his own “Wolf Lake” could be described as student by day, wolf by night. “On Monday night, NBC is the weakest link,” said Mr. Moonves, who predicted that “Link” and ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” will “cannibalize” each other at 8 p.m. Comparing “Raymond” to its gridiron competition, he said, “Maybe ABC should think about getting a comedian for `Monday Night Football.”’
The show must go on and on: Running time was 2 hours, 15 minutes. Many in the SRO crowd didn’t wait for Mr. Moonves to leave the stage before they began their exit from Carnegie Hall.
The facts: Three new comedies, two new dramas. Monday, Saturday and Sunday return intact.
The themes: Stability (six “new assets” built in little more than a year); innovation (“24,” a 24-episode thriller about 24 hours in which Kiefer Sutherland must stop an assassination plot); reinvention (much-improved clips of “The Tick” since the last upfront); risk (midseason’s “Greg the Bunny” and the move of freshman hit “Dark Angel” to 8 p.m. Friday, which has claimed more scripted victims than the world’s worst drivers; and comedies, 12 in all, that “play squarely within the Fox brand”).
The Intrepid quotient: Fox moved out of the intimate Beacon Theater and onto the aircraft carrier/museum Intrepid, which didn’t work as a metaphor at the end of a nine-upfront week (“If it wasn’t for the promise of an open bar, I’m sure you’d be ready to jump ship,” said Entertainment President Gail Berman.) But the location did inspire an entertaining and droll “Top Gun” spoof starring sales President Jon Nesvig, a photo of News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch taped to his control panel and Mr. Nesvig being shot down by the demographic contenders. Moreover, the huge tent erected on the carrier’s deck was not soundproof. When the blare of a foghorn intruded, Ms. Berman joked: “Sandy [Grushow] said `No bathroom humor.”’
The taunts: Tuesdays will start with “That ’70s Show” and Judd Apatow’s new coming-of-age comedy, “Undeclared,” while “the competition is showcasing older women,” said Ms. Berman, referring to “Buffy” on UPN and “Gilmore Girls” on The WB.
The moments of truth: David Hill, chief of Fox Sports, which will broadcast the Super Bowl next January, heckled himself (“a small, pathetic attempt at humor”) in a style that “Weakest Link” bully-host Anne Robinson might envy.
The show must go on and on: The running time of one hour, 35 minutes felt much longer because Fox’s was the last upfront and was devoid of entertainment value after the “Top Gun” opening.
The facts: Three new comedies, three new dramas. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday return intact.
The themes: The network’s 75th anniversary (which the public will be invited to celebrate with a live three-hour anniversary special, among other things); comedies with “Wonder Years”-style narrative and “Ally McBeal”-style fantasy sequences (“Inside Schwartz” and “Scrubs”); dramas that owe a lot to “Law & Order” (in addition to the Sunday spinoff “Criminal Intent,” there’s ex-“L&O” prosecutor Jill Hennessy in “Crossing Jordan”); and gay jokes and straight talk from the stage of fabled Radio City Music Hall. The men of “Will & Grace,” Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes, flirted with NBC Chairman-elect Bob Wright; and NBC got the “what if” treatment as an all-gay network (“Meet the Press” would become “Press the Meat”). Newsman-turned-Entertainment President Jeff Zucker’s favorite line was, “Let me be frank.”
The comedy highs and lows: “Saturday Night Live’s” Darrell Hammond nailed Bill Clinton in an otherwise slow executive edition of “Weakest Link.” The appearance of “Little Jay Leno” went over like the proverbial lead balloon because the crowd didn’t seem to recognize the recurring character from “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and because the pint-sized character’s pint-sized car stalled and had to be hauled offstage. Mr. O’Brien added insult to injury by replaying the whole thing on his show the next night. “It ran out of gas,” said Mr. O’Brien. “I hope that in no way is an omen for the fall schedule.”
The taunts: Making his stage debut as NBC Entertainment president, an ever-confident Mr. Zucker, whose stint as executive producer of “Today” accustomed him to winning with less of a fight than he had on his hands with his “Must-See TV” against CBS’s “Survivor”/“CSI” strategy, said, “I congratulate them on a good run–12 weeks.”
The chef’s bow: In his “Today” days, Mr. Zucker coveted Emeril Lagasse, who will continue as a weekly contributor to ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Now that he’s got the popular chef-restaurateur-author-Food Network host, the question is whether Mr. Lagasse can handle dialogue more demanding than “Bam!” and “kick it up a notch.”
The show must go on and on: The running time of two hours, 20 minutes moved many to thank their lucky TV stars that NBC had picked up only five new series.
The facts: The network owned by a company that’s partly owned by NBC is adding a prequel to “Bonanza,” NBC’s long-running hit Western from the ’60s, as well “Forbidden Secrets,” hosted by Lee Majors, and “Ed McMahon’s Next Big Star,” another round of star searching by Johnny Carson’s ex-sidekick. The network is also bringing the best-selling “Left Behind” apocalyptic/religious novels to its air as a miniseries and will be airing second runs of “Crossing Jordan” and “Weakest Link,” both from its strategic partner, NBC.
The synergy: Pax’s “Mysterious Ways,” returning in the fall, again will get a big promotional boost with a summer run on NBC.
The theme: “Positive, family-friendly programming.”
The promise: An all-original prime-time schedule within two years.
The cost: Pax currently pays $300,000 to $350,000 per hour for programming, according to President and CEO Jeff Sagansky.
The pitch: Because an academic study “proved” that viewers have less brand recall for commercials airing on programs with violent or sexual content, the advertising dollar goes twice as far on Pax.
Why original movies are not working on the broadcast networks: “It’s the same friggin’ movie,” according to Mr. Sagansky.
Why no one left this presentation early: It ended with a raffle in which advertisers won free trips.
The facts: The United Paramount Network is adding one new hour drama (“Enterprise,” the latest in the “Star Trek” franchise), one new comedy (“One on One”) and two new-to-UPN series from The WB, “Roswell” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Thursday, with “WWF Smackdown!,” is returning intact.
The theme: UPN wants to “expand outward” so it’s no longer known as just the “guy network.”
The calendar: So important to UPN is “Enterprise” on Wednesdays that the presentation worked backward from Tuesdays just to make that the grand finale.
The taunt: Despite The WB’s “propaganda,” “Buffy” was a “major get,” according to Tom Nunan, UPN’s entertainment president. And far from being declining shows, as The WB claimed, both “Buffy” and “Roswell” will “radically accelerate” the network’s rise to profitability, as UPN President and CEO Dean Valentine put it.
The pitch: Because its shows are “magnets” for audiences that care about them–the African Americans who tune in to the Monday comedies; the “Buffy”/”Roswell” addicts on Tuesdays; Trekkies on Wednesdays; teen boys high on “Smackdown!” on T
hursdays–advertisers should ask themselves whether they want to be in a show that’s on the schedule because of “flow” or because “it’s the high point of the viewer’s day.”
The moment of truth: The network that touted “passion” and shows that are draws for involved audiences admitted that on Fridays, its movie night, “We’re not doing anything particularly passionate. … We’re counterprogramming.”
The bottom line: If its expensive ploy works, everyone will forget that UPN has turned itself into The WB II on Tuesdays, or, as actor William Shatner put it in his introduction for Mr. Nunan: “His mission: to seek out new shows–or pay The WB for their shows.”
The facts: The network developed 17 comedy pilots and went with five on-air comedy commitments as well as a new one-hour drama (“Smallville,” the Superman prequel), a new half-hour reality dating game (“Elimidate Deluxe”) and a Sunday night reality “wheel” consisting of “Lost in the USA” and “No Boundaries.” Wednesdays remain unchanged.
The theme: “Empowerment and wish fulfillment” shows, and a long-term strategy of making the transition from drama to comedy and reality.
The promises: To “supercharge the pace” of synergy with the rest of AOL Time Warner, to add more comedies and to ensure the continued guidance of Jamie Kellner (“I’ll keep my hands on it, I promise you”). There will be no repeat of the “Buffy” renewal imbroglio because returning linchpin shows “Charmed,” “Sabrina,” “7th Heaven” and “Dawson’s Creek” all have been given multiple-season orders.
The high: The “Smallville” reel, which created a buzz of excitement about the prospects for this new take on the Superboy legend, presenting young Clark Kent as the ultimate alienated teen.
The low: The dismal TelePrompTer reading by Tom Welling (Clark Kent) and Kristin Kreuk (Lana Lang), “Smallville’s” attractive young stars, which temporarily turned down the heat the reel had built.
The taunt: “Buffy” is an aging show that is losing its core audience anyway, so it was time for it to go.
The moment of truth: “Wow, this is not the UPN!” said actor David Boreanaz, star of “Angel,” the “Buffy” spinoff. “Where’s `Buffy’?” he asked. Crossover opportunities will be “slim” in the new season, Mr. Boreanaz opined. “Maybe I’ll go over to `Felicity.”’
The pitch: The WB’s 18 to 34 target demo represents an opportunity to reach young people in their “brand-building years,” said Bill Morningstar, senior vice president of sales. “The babies of the baby boomers are coming.”
Must the show go on and on? “We know we have a tendency to run a little long at The WB,” said Jed Petrick, president and chief operating officer, at the beginning of a presentation that lasted almost 21/2 hours.