Hillary Atkin

All You Can Eat — and More: Feasting From Television’s Upfront Buffet

May 23, 2014

Attending upfronts is a bit like partaking in an all-you-can-eat buffet: something you do once a year — in which some of the offerings are pretty tasty, some inedible, several of which that are incredibly delicious and leave you hungering for more, others that can best be classified as comfort food, plus some new offerings sprinkled here and there throughout the line. It all amounts to the net effect of leaving you sated, if perhaps a bit queasy.

From NBC to Fox, Univision to Telemundo, A&E, National Geographic, TBS, Adult Swim to the CW and Mundo Fox to NBCU Cable, we traversed New York City during a late spring period that encompassed 80 degrees and sunny and devolved into drizzle and even flash flood warnings that played havoc with flight schedules.

In their presentations to advertisers and media buyers, networks compete not just with their programming, but with the events themselves, which this year were held in locations ranging from the groan-worthy Javits Center North Hall (the heart of the stabbing district, as Seth Meyers called it) to theaters including the Beacon, the Hirschfeld, the Ziegfeld and New York City Center to event spaces like the Paramount Hotel, Edison Ballroom, Park Avenue Armory, Madison Square Garden and Jazz at Lincoln Center — and even a photo studio in the Meatpacking District for the Vevo NewFront.

Comedians also square off on behalf of their corporate parents — Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon for NBC, Jimmy Kimmel for ABC, Andy Samberg for Fox and Conan O’Brien for Turner.

A number of networks pull out the big guns and the big bucks for headlining musical artists who either get the party started with a few choice songs or end the evening with a private concert.

For Fox, it was Pitbull who raised the roof at the Beacon with his hit “Give Me Everything.” Univision brought out the legendary Carlos Santana for a couple of numbers to cap off its presentation at Al Hirschfeld. A&E closed its Armory upfront with a lengthy show by Vampire Weekend. The CW featured Neon Trees on stage at City Center. NBC used Fred Armisen’s 8G “Late Night” band to warm things up in the late morning and NBCUniversal Cable presented Jessie J in a brief but energetic set during its cavernous afterparty at Javits.

But it was Adult Swim that reigned in the best concert category, presenting the newly regrouped and decidedly old-school hip-hop duo Outkast in a private concert at Terminal 5. Hey Ya — it was the Atlanta connection that brought André 3000 and Big Boi to the stage for the most raging party of upfronts, which kicked off with a video presentation by a cigar-chomping Triumph the Insult Comic Dog in the most minimalist and on-brand programming preview of the week.

Outkast’s hour-plus-long set, which started around 11 p.m., thrilled the packed three-tiered venue with hip-hop classics including “B.O.B.” and “So Fresh, So Clean.” And of course, “Hey Ya.”

And get used to the concept and the sound of the word “eventize,” one we heard repeatedly from NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt and Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly, to name just two of the top executives and sales managers who used it to describe not only actual events but marketing otherwise run of the mill one-offs or midseason finales. Hey, if it gets more viewers into the tent, why not? After all, upwards of $11 billion is at stake in the upfront advertising market.

Only brief clips are shown during the sell-and-schmooze fest so it’s difficult to make predictions of what will hit and what will miss, although there were some obvious trends toward superhero stories, dark conspiracy tales and more diversity in casting, as demonstrated by NBC’s “Mr. Robinson,” the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and Fox’s “Red Band Society” and “Empire.”

Here are some of the new shows and “events” (aside from all the hours of NFL and World Cup programming that line coffers with ad dollars) that sparked our interest:

History’s “Texas Rising,” which chronicles the often violent history of the Texas Rangers with a cast that includes Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta, Bill Paxton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Olivier Martinez, Max Thieriot and Thomas Jane. To balance out all that testosterone, there’s “The Red Tent” on Lifetime, a retelling of biblical tales through women’s eyes. Also announced, the new FYI network, a re-brand of Bio, launching this summer and aimed at a young, upscale audience.

Two new series intrigued, “The Flash,” a spinoff of “Arrow” and a DC Comics origin story about the fastest man alive, and the comedic soap “Jane the Virgin,” based on a Venezuelan telenova about a young woman who gets pregnant under unusual circumstances. “The Vampire Diaries” and “Reign” retain their Thursday night perches while “Supernatural” enters its 10th season.

Speaking of superhero origin stories from DC, “Gotham” goes back to a time before “Batman,” when an idealistic detective (Ben McKenzie) works to solve the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, and takes their young son Bruce under his wing. Along the way, we’ll meet the Penguin, Catwoman and Alfred the Butler in their earlier incarnations.

Also notable: “Gracepoint,” the American version of the UK’s critically acclaimed crime drama “Broadchurch,” starring Anna Gunn and David Tennant as the two lead detectives, and Lee Daniels’ “Empire,” a family drama set in the world of a hip-hop empire with Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson toplining.

The two-year-old network, part of Fox Hispanic Media’s portfolio, unveiled several original prime-time series, including the highly anticipated “El Capitán” starring Humberto Zurita and José María de Tavira, “¿Quién Mató a Patricia Soler?” with Mexican powerhouse Itatí Cantoral, along with returning favorites like “Cien Latinos Dijeron,” hosted by Marco Antonio Regil, and the network’s rebranded national news division, “Noticias MundoFox con Rolando Nichols.” Also ahead, a Spanish language version of “The X Factor,” “El Factor X,” and “The Golden Boys,” a boxing docuseries produced by Oscar de la Hoya and Mario Lopez.

First there was the live “The Sound of Music,” and its unexpected ratings success. Now there will be “Peter Pan” sprinkling stardust on the Peacock. Another big event — in addition to the Olympics for the next 18 years — the three-hour “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary special. On the comedy front, Tina Fey’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” looked weirdly funny, while “A to Z” and “Marry Me” seemed to warrant a watch. “The Blacklist” has spawned “Allegiance.” Also upcoming, “A.D.,” which producer Mark Burnett described as “Game of Thrones” meets “The Borgias” and “The Bible.”

NBCU Cable
Formerly an event just for USA, all the Comcast cable channels (Syfy, E!, Bravo, USA, Esquire, Sprout) piled on for the final upfront of the week, which featured appearances from Kim Kardashian, Joan Rivers and Joel McHale to demonstrate the concept and sales pitch, “All Together.” In addition to returning favorites peppered throughout portfolio, Elizabeth Hurley stars as the queen — that’s right, the ruling monarch, in E!’s first-ever scripted drama, “The Royals,” which boasts the tagline “anarchy in the monarchy.” This could go so wrong that it could be right, right up there in our list of guilty pleasures.

TNT is getting “younger and a little louder,” according to Michael Wright, president and head of programming. Network favorite Kyra Sedgwick is producing the supernatural drama "Proof," Sean Bean stars in the thriller “Legends,” Michael Bay is producing "The Last Ship." Also intriguing: the 1960s-era police drama "Public Morals."

TBS has renewed “Conan” through 2018, at which point the comedian joked he’ll look like Bruce Jenner’s mother. Springboarding off the rerun strength of “The Big Bang Theory,” the net is bringing over new episodes of “American Dad!” from Fox. Also looking for laughs, the police procedural spoof "Angie Tribeca," starring Rashida Jones and produced by Steve Carell.

The broadcaster announced 800 hours of original programming, led by novellas “Los Miserables” and “Dueños del Paraíso,” which features popular actress Kate Del Castillo, who starred on the net’s “La Reina del Sur.” On the unscripted side, there’s the return of “La Voz Kids” and “Top Chef Estrellas” with the new musical competition series
Yo Soy El Artista” joining the lineup.

Next year, Telemundo and the younger-skewing mun2 will become the official Spanish-language home of the FIFA World Cup, featuring more than 550 hours across all platforms.

Not to be outdone in the musical competition front, the network — which includes 16 broadcast, cable and digital networks and 130 TV and radio stations — is bringing in Simon Cowell to do what he knows best, form a boy band in a competition series titled “La Banda,” which will scour the U.S. and Latin America for talent. Also new, the video site Flama, four quarterly investigative specials on UniMas called “Entre Lineas” and a batch of new dramas for both UniMas and Univision, including “La Gata,” “Hasta El Fin Del Mundo,” about a sultry chocolatier, “Mi Corazon Es Tuyo” and “La Malquerida.”

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