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Less Proves to Be More at the Network Upfronts

May 21, 2007  •  Post A Comment

In what has become a sure harbinger of spring, The Insider answers lingering questions about the highlights, the lowlights and the inexplicable aspects of networks’ upfront presentations to Madison Avenue.

What was the most notable presentation trend at the upfronts this year?

Brevity. Blessed brevity. NBC kicked it off at Radio City Music Hall on Day 1 of the annual four-day test of endurance, fortitude, concentration, backbones and butts, bringing in its unusually low-frills production in about 83 minutes. Two days later, CBS wrapped up its production at Carnegie Hall in about 75 minutes. At the end of Thursday, Fox beat them both. “All you need to do is shorten your speech,” “24’s” Jack Bauer told Fox’s Peter Liguori after informing him he had only an hour to get in and out of the last upfront.

How did the networks lose the bloat?

NBC and CBS effectively scrapped the stats, thereby dramatically reducing the MEGO (My Eyes Glazed Over) quotient, relegating the droning drill-downs about viewership numbers, demos and upscaleness to where it belongs: behind closed doors during the arm-wrestling between ad sales folk and ad-buying folk.

With the exception of ABC, the digital droning was diminished. (See next question.)

Learning from last year, NBC tackled cross-platform possibilities in a droll video starring “30 Rock” cast members. It was funny until Tracy Morgan ripped his shirt off. The Insider still shudders at the thought.

The networks also narrowed the focus. No news executives or news stars parading across the stages for NBC or CBS, both of which have dimmer news star power than a year ago, or for ABC. CBS and ABC likewise eliminated the sports element, while NBC brought the passing demonstration by the “Sunday Night Football” team back for a second winning year.

Oddly, NBC also skipped even a mention of late night. Not flying lame duck Jay Leno cross-country may make some sort of sense, but “Tonight Show” host-in-waiting Conan O’Brien works just across the street.

Instead, NBC spotlighted Jerry Seinfeld, who’s returning to the network with interstitial comedy bits that previewed as laugh-out-loud funnier than three of NBC’s returning comedies.

CBS at least compiled a best-of montage of David Letterman’s political-season highlights and mentioned Craig Ferguson’s highest-ever “Late Show” ratings.

And ABC let Jimmy Kimmel do one of the things he does best: Irk cool and above-it-all executives and audience members. If only they had let him bring along his “Dancing With the Stars” partner, parking lot security guard Guillermo Rodriguez, to reprise one of the funniest prime-time running comedy bits of the season.

Fox started its stage show with a parade of series stars that effectively got the audience’s attention without requiring the performers to do anything more strenuous than walk across the stage. Fox Broadcasting Sales President Jon Nesvig gave an efficient overview of major sporting programming, multiplatform opportunities and potential partnerships in going “carbon-neutral.”

So it was all good?

There you go, leaping to conclusions. Until Thursday, when Fox cleverly deployed “24’s” Bauer to tell the City Center audience, “The following takes place between 4 and 5 p.m.,” The Insider was missing the old executive-as-frustrated-actor vanity vignettes. Clever as it is to have a virtual CBS Sales President JoAnn Ross do presto-change-o wardrobe shifts, it’s not the same as seeing a network executive run down a hated rival in a yellow cab. But then, the promotions of Jeff Zucker, now president and CEO of NBC Universal, and Leslie Moonves, now CBS Corp. president and CEO, surely signaled that the days of executive ultimate fighting and yo’ mama matches were over.

Mr. Zucker stayed off the NBC upfront stage, thus sending the clear signal that it’s all on Entertainment President Kevin Reilly (and freshman NBCU ad sales President Michael Pilot, who made a confident debut).

Mr. Moonves, on the other hand, stayed much longer on the stage than he’d led the audience to believe he would.

Ditto Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, who seems determined not to be a stem-winder when one is desperately needed and who has a most disconcerting speaking gesture that looks like she is about to grab her bazooms.

ABC also sucked all promise out of “National Bingo Night” before its debut last week with a demonstration so painfully looooooong and slow that a woman behind The Insider pleaded, “For the love of God, somebody have bingo.”

All in all, despite interesting-looking clips, ABC managed to make one hour and 45 minutes seem like soooo much more. And not in a good way. The Insider wished she had packed her jammies.

So why didn’t The Insider just stay in her jammies all week and watch the upfronts via Webcast?

Funny you should ask. She just might do that next year-especially if they all look as crisp and clear and slick as Fox’s Webcast. It didn’t occur to her to try a Webcast until Day 3 last week, when genuinely menacing weather was advancing on New York City. So The Insider, who tends to melt like the Wicked Witch when it rains (or she sweats), opted for the Webcast of CBS’ presentation on Wednesday. Aside from sound-level adjustments at the beginning, it worked perfectly. Next year, The Insider may look for a virtual way to attend the CBS party at Tavern on the Green, which becomes a humid torture chamber when it rains.

Alas, the next morning’s CW upfront Webcast was a glitch-riddled bust, at least in The Insider’s high-speed neighborhood. Not until the last 10 or 15 minutes did the Webcast manage to keep sound and video operating without interruption. But between the closing performance of The CW’s new theme song by Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and the ways 18- to 34-year-old viewers will be encouraged to gossip and shop and study up on the latest trends, The Insider was moved to take pen in arthritic, Luddite hand and jot down on a piece of scrap paper: “This is your brain on The CW.”

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