Cracking wise at the upfront

May 20, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Of all the sales lines I heard last week during the upfronts in New York, the one during NBC’s presentation spoken by “Saturday Night Live’s” “Weekend Update” anchor Tina Fey had a particular ring of truth.
“Why should you buy advertisements on NBC?” Ms. Fey asked. “Because they don’t sell ads on HBO.”
As fake newscasters often do, Ms. Fey pointed out the little absurdity hidden in plain sight. Network executives like to say that their network is the one with the most quality shows that reach the most upscale demos. Yet the one network with the truly enviable mix of quality and demos doesn’t do upfronts.
But we all watch network television anyway, don’t we? God yes. Lots of it. And all we watch are quality shows aimed at upscale audiences, right?
Life would be very boring if every show were a quality show. Boring for everyone except me, since there would be no further need for TV critics and I would be out looking for a new job-and I don’t need that kind of excitement. Every time I visit the upfronts, however, I come away safe in the knowledge that I will be gainfully employed for another year.
For starters, I’m reminded how loose the network definition of “quality” can be. After all, this is a world in which Dennis Farina is considered by his NBC bosses to be a “huge star.” (Quick, name five things he’s been in.) Likewise, The WB network introduced Tim Curry as “The one and only Tim Curry,” as if he was some renowned actor of stage and screen who has condescended to making a television “programme.” (He’s made a few more than that. Then again, this is the same network that once signed Tom Arnold to a sitcom deal and then acted like it had signed Schwarzenegger.)
Another thing I notice is that last year’s lofty programming goals have a funny way of becoming this year’s upfront entertainment. You won’t be surprised to learn that “Emeril” jokes were popular this year, even at NBC’s upfront, where Ms. Fey’s teammate Jimmy Fallon announced that the chef would be catering the party, only to break in a few minutes later with, “This just in: Emeril’s catering has just been canceled.”
ABC, however, may have broken new ground when it invited Jimmy Kimmel to say a few words at its upfront. Mr. Kimmel, who had been signed the day before to take over Bill Maher’s late-night spot, rendered his bosses temporarily speechless when he actually predicted his own program’s demise before it had even gone into production. He also predicted the demise of his bosses at ABC, Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne.
“I want to thank Lloyd and Susan, since it’s doubtful that either of you will be around when the show goes on the air,” Mr. Kimmel said. “We had lunch, I got a late-night show. I read `The Late Shift.’ I don’t think it’s supposed to be like this.”
The king of the network put-downs, however, remains CBS Television chief Leslie Moonves. I don’t know if it’s the improving fortunes of CBS or Mr. Moonves’ adding the Smackdown network to his purview, but he seems to be getting feistier. For this year’s upfront he approved a wicked satire on his rivals, played by a country-roots band to the tune of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” A sample:
My name is Jeff Z
I run the Peacock
Where keeping “Friends”
Has made us poor
I put “Emeril” on
Our Tuesday menu
Where it became
My flop du jour
Even Mr. Moonves, however, cannot escape reminders of his own failures, at least as long as he keeps inviting David Letterman to address the upfront. “We certainly want to find out what this year’s `Wolf Lake’ will be,”’ cackled Mr. Letterman.
And yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a little network executive in me-an
executive like the late Brandon Tartikoff, who really did love television and wanted to believe that the shows he shepherded onto the air were in fact the best entertainment network dollars could buy.
And every year I’m rewarded by getting advance peeks at a few promising new pilots, some of which may even go on to become those fabled quality upscale hits. This year that list includes “Everwood,” “CSI: Miami,” “Life With Bonnie,” “Firefly” and possibly even the “Family Affair” remake starring The One And Only Tim Curry.
There’s one more reason I attend upfronts. Unlike the TCA critics’ tour that takes place in July, the upfronts aren’t put on for the press. We’re invited to attend, but the target audience is advertisers. The critics’ tour is premised on a false dynamic between viewers and TV shows; upfronts reflect ultimate reality, which is a conversation about value between buyers and sellers. And in that dialogue, a schlockfest like “Fear Factor” has as much right to talk about its value (let’s hear it for young upscale males!) as “The West Wing.” That is both a liability of network TV-one that commercial-free services such as HBO are happy to exploit-and its strength.
As I look over the crowds in Carnegie Hall and Radio City, I see the human backbone of a system that has brought us most of the TV shows I have ever loved, and I realize they will probably do so for many upfronts to come.#