Critic's Notebook: The Sadness of Upfronts

Oh, sure, broadcast networks seem super exciting now, but wait until the carnage of fall and beyond.
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Everybody's happy until the hits don't come.

If you've ever driven slowly by a roadside carnival and felt a dirty little shiver, then you already know a little something about the broadcast network upfronts.

It's the saddest place on Earth, ginned up to look like Disneyland if you tweak the mirrors just right. The same promise New York has given immigrants for generations — today is the first day of the rest of your life and it's going to be as amazing as you want it to be — it gives to the industry and ad buyers once a year. Gather here, the upfronts say every May, and forget what horrors are behind you. Next fall it will all be as amazing as you want it to be.

Except that it almost never is.

What comes after upfronts is the reality of fall. It's almost always a depressing realization that building a business based on getting the most viewers and in turn charging the highest ad rates for those viewers is a parlor trick of diminishing thievery when those viewers have plenty of others options and don't come around much anymore.

Until the industry changes, the foreseeable future will be some variation on that — and if you've been paying any attention at all over the past 50-something years, you already know this is not an industry keen on change. Of course, up until the past decade or so when change was essential, movement was unnecessary. But there wasn't much movement against the cable onslaught until it was too late (and to be honest, the networks haven't even successfully course-corrected against that — still trying to come up with a summer strategy all these years later, flip-flopping on what the tone of shows should be, failing to alter the cost structure to be more effective and feasible, etc.). Now everybody in cable is making television — and lots of the content created is very good. Nobody in network television these days needs yet another reminder that Netflix and Amazon and pretty much any place streaming content are players to be dealt with.

They know. Oh, holy hell, do they know.

It's kind of a bleak picture.

Which is what makes this annual upfronts dog-and-pony show so sad, weird and, let's be honest, thrillingly bloated with the opportunity for schadenfreude. The very concept of it seems either absurd or larded with deception. Ad buyers walk the New York walk of "Do not bullshit me about the realities I see before me" and the networks say, in turn, "Never has there been a better opportunity to get the most bang for your buck!"

The polarity is exquisite.

Seriously, every year that broadcast networks see their ratings shrink and their audience dilute and their Emmys disappear, the assumption is that ad buyers will politely RSVP that they'll be taking in a Mets or Yankees game and will be unable to attend. But they show up.

And — if you're looking for the magically positive part of this column, you've found it — they spend money. Now, this is where it gets as tricky as it does dubious, but by many accounts money that was spent in the past in better days will again be spent in these more forlorn days, to the tune of nearly $8 billion. Now, credit the sales departments and their data crunchers for still making this a thing. Because while many ad buyers have been on record as saying they are not going to pay more for less, the same buyers also seem to be buying into whatever new-world analytics that are coming from the once Nielsen-reliant industry.

Despite a glut of time-shifting viewers (of the viewers still around), of having to sexy-up the notion of "on demand" users and everybody pretending that fast-forwarding either doesn't happen or that as much as three-quarters of the ad message still seeps into the eye sockets of fast-forwarding viewers, ad agencies are still giving tons of money to networks.

That's America, people. That's your feel-good moment.

Now, technically if the ratings promised by the networks don't happen, advertisers get their money back or some other "make good," usually in the form of additional placement. And if advertisers don't buy in now — at the upfronts — then the cost of doing business if and when there's a hit will go up astronomically.

But there haven't been many hits on broadcast lately. What there has been is an aggressive redefinition of what a "hit" is, up to and including burning or deleting any archives that reveal numbers when the networks were in their heyday. In the place of hits come creative inventions like "programmatic advertising" and "data currencies" and, one would assume, a return to bald-faced lies. If you really want to know if advertisers are paying more for less or if networks are charging less or if make-good ads are killing the remaining sellable ad inventory, hire a forensic accountant because you're in the wrong place.

This is really a tale of woe about how the unchecked buoyancy in the optimistic dreams of the networks circa May is almost always sliced to ribbons by reality, circa November, or September, if you're really cynical.

And therein lies the sadness, the roadside carny of it all. Running a broadcast network is like punching your own face. It's a mug's game. Who wouldn't rather run a minx-y little cable channel or align themselves with the mysterious ratings and deep pockets of Netflix or Amazon?

But for those who choose the network life, soldiering on is a big part of it. To survive often means playing it safe and familiar. Or, conversely, betting it all on red. Which is pretty much what we've seen this year.

CBS, a network apart, knows precisely what it does well and variations on that (say, Supergirl) are then adjusted back to the norm. CBS wins a lot because it's a very efficient network that knows what its audience wants. It then gives the audience more of that — like MacGyver, which is very on-brand. Simple isn't always easy — the shows still have to be good (or at least good enough for the intended audience — and the audience always decides).

NBC has done well by Dick Wolf-ing up its roster, spinning off series and holding down the fort when it does click with a new show, like Blindspot from last season. In broadcast, safe and familiar is good these days — which is why Fox is giving people 24: Legacy and more Prison Break and making a TV series out of Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist, or expanding the DNA of its Empire hit into another music drama called Star from Lee Daniels.

None of this may be super creative, but it's actually smart for the industry as it exists for dinosaurs like networks. In the Peak TV world, where viewers will eventually seek freedom from choice, standing pat with instantly familiar choices will likely work better than jumping into the fray, like ABC, with more and newer offerings nobody's really heard of except for anything from Shondaland.

The upside of free-swinging in the marketplace, on the other hand, is if something accidentally hits the bat, like Quantico, then you've got a home run and you might have pieces to build a future on. Or, more likely, one piece. Homerun hits are rare everywhere. Which means that the reverse of successfully free-swinging is whiffing entirely — and then you finish fourth again and possibly get fired.

Have you ever pulled over and actually visited one of those roadside carnivals? It's sketchy. The rides seem janky and unreliable. They only make you think of more thrilling rides at bigger amusement parks. There's not much joy there.

So this year's upfronts are really not much different from last year's upfronts, except we already know the death toll from last year. To get super excited by trailers is to forget that you did the same thing last year — and then the whole show appeared. And you went back to Netflix or found some little gem on cable that everybody talked about incessantly.

Nobody really talks about network shows incessantly much anymore, unless it's in a bad way — like gutting Sleepy Hollow or what a terrible ending Castle was for all those years invested. You know — those kinds of stories.

It's sad, but it's the reality of things until it's not — and being upfront about it seems nicer than getting all pissy about the failures next fall.

Keep up with all the renewals, cancellations and new series pickups with THR's handy scorecard and follow the pilot crop status here. For full Upfronts 2016 coverage, go to THR.com/upfronts.

 

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