Upfront Week out-of-the-ordinary this year

'Almost somber' presentations short on parties

NEW YORK -- Perhaps the shellshocked looks on the faces of buyers and advertisers leaving the NBC Universal Experience should have warned everyone that this year's Upfront Week wasn't going to be the same shrimp-filled spectacle.

On Monday, the rarefied world was turned upside down by the Peacock. It continued Tuesday and Wednesday, when CBS and ABC turned in out-of-the-ordinary presentations and the CW struggled to be heard. Party-crasher Turner, meanwhile, made up for last year's mistakes and made a case for why it should be there next year. On Thursday, by the time Fox dropped the curtain, the week finished up on more normal footing.

But this year's upfront, like the strike-addled 2007-08 TV season, just wasn't the same.

"There will be no dancing this year," ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson told ad buyers at ABC's upfront. "There will be no bells and whistles."

With the exception of Univision's spectacular -- with a number from Tony nominee "In the Heights" and a concert by Shakira -- Upfront Week 2008 came in exactly as advertised: lean, short on video because of a truncated development schedule and, in the words of one veteran upfront watcher, almost somber.

A rundown:

NBC: After hitting one out of the park with its no-nonsense scheduling presentation in early April, NBC stumbled with its Experience, which was designed to show that NBC Uni is more than just a fourth-place broadcast network. Instead, it gave ad buyers sore feet on the first day of the week and made them question why anyone would think this was a good idea. To its credit, NBC did throw a heck of a party afterward.

ESPN: The first cable network to crash the upfronts with its out-of-the-box show last year, ESPN came up with a simple idea this time around: a special Madison Avenue-themed "SportsCenter" to talk up multiplatform offerings. Unlike NBC's take, it worked -- probably because, like "SportsCenter," ESPN didn't take itself too seriously.

ABC: With none of the dancing or production numbers that highlighted past presentations, ABC's straightforward, compelling presentation was suited more for a conference room than Avery Fisher Hall, though Jimmy Kimmel, the lone network talent in attendance, sent some zingers NBC's way. But ABC lost points among some ad buyers because it had little tape of its new shows even though the network only has two new programs for the fall. And the decision to have no party meant its customers quickly turned the page.

The CW: The fifth-place network held a small presentation within a party immediately after ABC's event. It spent lavishly -- food and liquid flowed freely, and rockers Maroon 5 don't come cheap -- but the noise level was so high that network chief Dawn Ostroff and her two holograms couldn't compete.

Turner: After a disastrous upfront presentation last year, Turner turned it around with a morning event that left the impression that big things were happening. Thanks to a different production schedule, Turner showed lots of footage of its pilots, a fact not lost on buyers who hadn't seen much from ABC the day before. It also flew in its stars, and then, because there was no party, flew them right out again.

Univision: The network promised that it wouldn't skimp, and it didn't lie. It brought in Shakira to perform and "In the Heights" stars, giving ad buyers a taste of past upfronts glory. That and a growing audience for Spanish-language TV will pay off for the network when the buying begins.

CBS: Unlike NBC, CBS didn't take as much time to show off the rest of its corporate assets, but that part still drew sighs. Said one ad executive, "If you're a media buyer and you don't know that already, you should be ashamed of yourself." CBS scored points for having a clear, consistent and expansive look at its programming. But it also lost points for not having a party and creating something of a traffic hazard on West 57th Street in front of Carnegie Hall, when a thousand or so media buyers, with no place to go, wondered what to do next.

Fox: After its meltdown two years ago, Fox made good last year with a one-hour presentation. It pleased the crowd again this year with its brevity. Especially impressive was the first look at "Dollhouse," which had completed production only a week earlier. Fox also eschewed entertainment -- and, interestingly enough, "American Idol" -- but ended with a dance number from "So You Think You Can Dance." And just like last year, Fox's party was the (carbon-neutral) place to be.
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