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Lessons From the ‘Unfronts’

May 18, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Upfront week is usually one of the happiest slots on the TV industry calendar. Last week was different.
What customarily has been a week of set-piece presentations of new shows to advertisers morphed into an ad hoc collection of meetings, parties and more traditional staged affairs.
It began with NBC Universal overloading the synapses of advertisers with its much-hyped “Experience,” rushing them through a maze that highlighted the company’s media properties while providing them little new information.
It ended with Fox bravely trying to stir up some excitement via some old-fashioned marketing razzle dazzle—cows in the middle of Manhattan!—even though the network has only two new shows for the fall.
Overall, the week felt more like the un-fronts: Uninspired, underfunded and unlike anything network TV has seen before.
CBS and Fox came closest to sticking to the upfront script of past years, with big programming presentations and lots of clips from new shows.
“I do believe there’s a value in a good, strong presentation,” said Warner Bros. Television President Peter Roth. “There’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned showmanship. If a network can’t get excited about their new slate of programs, why would consumers?”
The upfronts weren’t a complete waste of time, however. Billions of dollars of advertising deals will be initiated after last week. Merrill Lynch predicts upfront sales (which usually account for about 75% of prime-time ad deals) will decline 2% to 14% this year.
For programmers dealing with the aftermath of a season decimated by the 100-day Writers Guild of America strike, the upfronts served as a palate-cleansing of sorts. Even if they didn’t provide a sense of energy and excitement about the new season, the networks at least proved they’re still here—ready to try again to engage viewers.
Here are seven lessons that emerged from a week in New York:
Developing New Habits
The strike didn’t kill the upfronts. But it may have changed the development process forever.
For years, TV types have been whining about the way new shows are brought to life. Words such as “outdated” and “insane” were often used to describe development season, particularly since millions of dollars were spent on projects that would never come close to getting on the air.
What 2008 proved is that it’s possible for studios and networks to pull together development slates that are more focused and less costly.
“Sometimes, under duress, you make smarter and maybe better decisions,” said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler.
Warner Bros. Television, for example, produced just four drama pilots this spring—and the studio managed to get series orders for all of them.
“This year was about target specificity, from the conception of an idea to its execution,” WBTV’s Mr. Roth said. “Doing fewer pilots and doing them more effectively is a good thing.”
Dana Walden, who heads 20th Century Fox Television with Gary Newman, said there was an unintended benefit from the strike-shortened development season.
“It forced the networks to be very discriminating about which pilots they absolutely needed,” she said. “There wasn’t the time or money to conduct things (the usual way). Everyone scrutinized their development and only ordered what they really needed.”
Ms. Walden and Mr. Newman predicted that media company bosses like News Corp.’s Peter Chernin and CBS Corp.’s Leslie Moonves will order their studio chiefs to exercise similar restraint in coming years.
“When those in upper management see the realities of how much less was spent on pilots this year, they’ll be pushing their execs to achieve more with less,” Mr. Newman said.
Comedic Resurgence
It’s not exactly a renaissance, but the sitcom is showing some signs of staging a recovery.
CBS has seven live-action half-hour shows in production for next season, the most at any network in a long time. As a result, for the first time since 2005, the network will expand comedy programming to a second night next fall (Wednesday).
ABC and NBC also are spreading out their comedy efforts. NBC will move out of its Thursday comfort zone to try to launch a Tuesday half-hour (“Kath and Kim”) behind “The Biggest Loser.” And ABC will program “Scrubs” (rescued after the end of its run on NBC) and the new animated half-hour “The Goode Family” on Tuesday nights come January.
Fox, meanwhile, is finally getting serious about preparing for life after “The Simpsons.” After years of failed animated pilots, the network has scheduled two new half-hour cartoons for the spring, and has created an in-house lab to come up with more animated ideas.
On the studio side, Sony Pictures Television got some good news last week with the renewals of “’Til Death” and “Rules of Engagement,” which both will be headed into their third seasons. Critics will never wax rhapsodic about the shows, but their survival for another year—along with CBS’ renewals of “How I Met Your Mother” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine”—brings hope that the bone-dry sitcom syndication pipeline soon will get some much-needed replenishment.
Another ray of light for sitcoms last week came from TBS, which showed off “some very interesting comedy development” at the Turner upfront last week, according to Mr. Roth.
“There are some hopefully positive signs (for comedy),” Mr. Roth added. “But the genre is still in a very challenged state. Nobody’s giving up. But we have to do a better job executing these shows.”
A Season Abroad
After years of borrowing reality formats from overseas, the networks this season took the plunge and began importing scripted ideas—in a big way.
Not surprisingly, NBC—led by the globe-trotting Ben Silverman—is very active importing show formats from overseas. It’s bringing over “Kath & Kim” from Australia, and is working with international producers on “Crusoe” and “Merlin.”
The bulk of CBS’ five fall shows also began life in other countries, with “The Ex List” originating in Israel and “Eleventh Hour” and “Worst Week” hailing from the U.K. ABC’s big drama gun, “Life on Mars,” is another British remake, as are the Fox half-hours “Sit Down, Shut Up” and “Do Not Disturb.”
As with so many trends this year, the strike played a role in the networks’ international shopping spree. While writers were picketing, executives desperately begun hunting for material—and found it elsewhere.
Playing It Safe
After a year of declining ratings, network executives found themselves looking for sure things. The result is a flood of pre-sold properties that will look familiar to viewers of a certain age.
NBC began the trend by bringing back “Knight Rider” as a two-hour movie in February. It did well enough to merit a series order. The CW, meanwhile, is diving into Fox’s teen canon by reviving 1990s hit “Beverly Hills, 90210”—shortened, in the text-messaging era, to just “90210.”
Over at Fox, spring will see the arrival of animated effort “The Cleveland Show,” featuring a regular character from “Family Guy.” NBC has yet to announce any details of its planned spinoff of “The Office.”
Spinoffs and remakes tend to work brilliantly (one word: “Frasier”) or flame out in a big way (five words: “Love Boat: The Next Wave”). But since some network executives have famously short memories, most probably found courage in the strong ratings for “Private Practice,” last fall’s offshoot of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Answer: What Is Unscripted?
The networks are playing lots of games with viewers.
Game shows seem to have surpassed reality shows and newsmagazines as the new go-to staples for networks looking to plug holes in their schedules.
NBC has been (over?)using “Deal or No Deal” for a couple of years now, and that trend will continue next fall when the show airs twice a week.
Fox also is heavy on games. Friday nights will be devoted to “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and “Don’t Forget the Lyrics!” And in the season’s biggest showdown between game shows and reality, trainwreck hit “Moment of Truth” will face off against unscripted stalwart “Survivor.”
The season’s sleeper, however, is the one new game show on the schedule:
ABC’s “Opportunity Knocks.” Network President Steve McPherson describes it as “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” meets “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and it seemed to play well to advertisers at ABC’s upfront.
Speaking of “Millionaire”: Next year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Regis Philbin phenom. Can a prime time revival be far away?
The Peter Principle
Warner Bros. Television will be eating its own.
Mr. Roth can’t lose next season. He also can’t win, at least not entirely.
It’s the right problem to have, but the gods of scheduling have somehow decided that many of Mr. Roth’s biggest shows will compete against each other in the same time slot.
The problem is most severe Mondays at 8 p.m. That’s where CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory” and Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” will face off against NBC’s “Chuck” and The CW’s “Gossip Girl.” All four shows hail from Warner, with the latter two coming from the same WBTV-based producer, Josh Schwartz.
Other Warner vs. Warner schedule smackdowns next season are Wednesdays at 8 p.m. (“Old Christine” vs. “Pushing Daisies”) and Thursdays at 10 p.m. (“ER” vs. “Eleventh Hour.”)
Post-Upfront Upfronts
The upfronts are just the beginning.
While network suits did their best to pretend that the strike had only a minimal impact on programming plans, many industry insiders believe this year’s upfront presentations will end up serving as the first drafts of what networks have in store for next season.
With plenty of pilots still in development and set to be filmed in the next few weeks, networks soon will have some shiny new toys to choose from. One top executive last week predicted that most of the networks will end up adding at least one new show to their lineups over the summer.
As it is, network executives have made a habit in recent years of announcing one schedule in May, only to make a couple of key changes once they get back to Los Angeles. The rushed nature of this year’s development process means the lineups unveiled this week are all written in pencil.
The networks didn’t try to hide that fact from advertisers.
ABC made a point of stressing that it had 20 pilots in the works, promising more new series late in the fourth quarter or early next year. Fox said it would probably pick up two drama projects it has in the hopper, and it left one half-hour on its winter schedule for a sitcom TBD.
Click here for a complete fall 2008 schedule, as announced up to May 16, 2008.

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