Everything You Need to Know About the Upfronts
Advertisers walk out on Jay Leno, Fox execs confess financial difficulties (but renew the hardly watched Dollhouse for fear of angering its tiny cult following), and ABC places its bet on comedy: new, unheard-of comedy—and lots of it. Kim Masters reports from this week's television upfronts.
Tuesday was a big day—and night—at the upfronts, culminating with NBC’s Night of Comedy. The show replaced the usual upfront presentation because fourth-place NBC presented its new programs (but not its schedule) to advertisers a couple of weeks ago, to get the jump on the competition.
So NBC had a night of comedy at the Town Hall Theater with an array of talent including Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and of course, Jay Leno. There were some funny people at the NBC show including Jerry Seinfeld, who put in a few minutes of standup. But overall it was kind of a study of comedy hierarchy. Rainn Wilson was there but not Steve Carell. Tracy Morgan was there but not Tina Fey.
The networks told the press not to write about the show because the comics didn’t want it covered. It seems they use some of this material on the road and don’t want it revealed… so it seems fair to mention only a few jokes specific to the upfronts and not top-secret stuff from shows performed around the country in front of thousands of people again and again. Fallon did a lot of upfront-specific material (if Courteney Cox married NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker, she’d be... you had to be there.) O’Brien said he showed up because he “wanted the chance just one time to go on before Jay Leno.” Wilson did a bit about product placement that ended with a parting, “Suck it, Zucker.” Comics—they kill ya.
The big mistake of the evening—and we’re not revealing any jokes here—was Leno’s decision to use material that was so obviously canned for his exceptionally long standup routine.
The big mistake of the evening—and we’re not revealing any jokes here—was Leno’s decision to use material that was so obviously canned for his exceptionally long standup routine. Suffice to say that cats were duly covered and eventually the audience—that is, the folks who will decide whether to pay NBC big dollars to advertise in Leno five nights a week in prime time—actually started to walk out.
Before Tuesday, there was Monday: Fox was the first broadcast network to do an upfront presentation—and there was great news! The world as we know it is not coming to an end.
You see, this is supposed to be the year when the advertisers balk, when the more than $9 billion in sales that the networks execute in the wake of these presentations turns into significantly less than $9 billion—perhaps as much as 15 percent less. It’s not just the economy, stupid. It’s the stunningly fast fragmentation of audiences defecting to “other screens”—laptops and handheld devices that offer such a world of stuff to do.
But Fox kicked off the week by driving home the message that people not only watch television but love it far more deeply that those alluring other screens. The network’s head of sales, Jon Nesvig, told advertisers at the New York City Center theater that broadcast television produces something called “loyal, attentive viewing,” which motivates customers to buy.
Network President Kevin Reilly took some flak about Fox’s decision to renew Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. He described the show as “a bet on Joss Whedon” and his “unbelievably loyal fan base.” If Fox had canceled the show, he’d have had “110 million emails from the fans.”
Fox’s big thing for fall is Glee: Sort of what High School Musical would be if it was somewhere near Wisteria Lane. For some networks, this year’s upfronts are more austere than the showy affairs of years past—still, Fox trotted out the cast for a big number. It sounded painfully lip-synced but the advertisers seemed to love it. Outside the theater, the exiting audience was greeted by perky cheerleaders performing in the street.
The network has a decent bill of goods to sell. Fox is No. 1 among adults for the fifth year in a row, thanks to American Idol. And American Idol is shellacking the No. 2 on television, those Desperate Housewives, by a 69 percent margin—which sounds a lot more impressive than just saying Idol is still strong though it’s slipped in the ratings.
The presentation also marked the debut of Peter Rice as head of the network. Rice is the mannerly British-born former head of Fox Searchlight (which did well with Napoleon Dynamite and Slumdog Millionaire). Rice has been in the TV job all of eight weeks and he stayed on message. “It was shocking to me, frankly, the amount of pessimism that’s written [in the media] at this time,” he told the advertisers. “We know that TV is evolving and we understand that there are real challenges that all networks face. But... people still love television.”
Fox dropped the mask a little during a question session with reporters. Network President Kevin Reilly acknowledged that Fox is cutting costs like everyone else. “It’s very hard when you used to have five story editors and now you get three,” he said. “But you know what? You figure it out. And that’s just where the new economics are.”
During that question session, Reilly took some flak about Fox’s decision to renew Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, which is doing poorly in the ratings. Reilly described the show as “a bet on Joss Whedon” and his “unbelievably loyal fan base.” And he acknowledged that if Fox had canceled the show, he’d have had “110 million emails from the fans.”
ABC had a different message for advertisers on Tuesday afternoon: Our viewers have money. And they don’t buy generic. “ABC’s desirable audiences are seeing your ads and paying attention,” said head of sales Mike Shaw. “These upper-income homes represent your best chance of making a sale.”
ABC was especially keen on selling Flash Forward, a new Thursday-night drama in which a mysterious event causes the entire world to black out and have visions about what might happen in the future. That show looks dark, but ABC is also laying a big bet on comedy. The economy looms large in a fresh batch the network will launch on Wednesday nights. It’s an ambitious plan because there is no familiar popular comedy to serve as a platform that might lure audiences to sample these new shows.
“These shows we’re so excited about? Most of them won’t make it to Christmas. ...Every year we lie to you and every year you come back for more. You don’t need an upfront—you need therapy! Everyone in this room is completely full of shit!”
There are familiar faces, though. Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton—teamed unsuccessfully on Fox last year—now get their own shows: Grammer in Hank as a laid-off rich guy who has to move back to his hometown; Heaton in a show called The Middle playing wife and mother in a family struggling to get by. The one that ABC is really pushing is called Modern Family, about “the complications that come with being a family.” ABC showed the entire first episode and it got big laughs.
What was really funny was Jimmy Kimmel. As the ABC presentation wound down, he strode out on the stage and told the truth. “Everything you’ve heard today, everything you’re going to hear this week, is bullshit,” he said. “Let’s get real here.... These shows we're so excited about? We’re going to cancel about 90 percent of them. Most of them won’t make it to Christmas.... Every year we lie to you and every year you come back for more. You don’t need an upfront—you need therapy! Everyone in this room is completely full of shit!”
How did the roomful of advertisers react? They laughed themselves sick. You see, Jay? It’s not so hard.
Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.