Upfronts Winners & Losers: CBS Scores, NBC Reboots, Simon Cowell Hits (and Misses)
A version of this story first appeared in the May 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
With heavy spin and many stars, the networks took over New York the week of May 14 to peddle their new fall wares. How did they do? The Hollywood Reporter breaks down who fared best and worst at the upfronts.
Comedy: Ad buyers are hearing "We're making a big bet on comedy" a lot as 16 of the 36 scripted pickups are half-hours. Single-camera still dominates, with a heavy focus on families, fractured or otherwise. NBC chief Robert Greenblatt waxed on about his four -- yes, four -- nights of comedy during his May 14 presentation, prompting Fox's Kevin Reilly to joke later that day, "I think this morning they announced about 200." (Reilly's own comedy, Ben & Kate, garnered a particularly warm reception.) ABC is adding four new comedies (aliens-next-door effort The Neighbors nabbed the post-Modern Family time slot), and CBS has ordered two. Even TBS, which crashes broadcast upfront week, scooped up Cougar Town from ABC.
CBS: The most-watched network did it again, packing Carnegie Hall with Madison Avenue wallets. With NCIS: LA's LL Cool J getting the crowd warmed up with a ratings-themed rap he wrote, the network presentation flowed smoothly -- and quickly. With only six new scripted series to introduce on a schedule largely devoid of holes, ever stage-ready Leslie Moonves and Nina Tassler used the platform to plug the net's performance. Beyond having nine of the top 10 dramas and eight of the top 10 comedies, the network is poised to win the season in total viewers by the widest margin in 23 years.
Jimmy Kimmel/Conan O'Brien: The late-night hosts provided much-needed jolts of laugh-out-loud comedy during the ABC and Turner upfronts, respectively. Kimmel, a longtime staple of his Disney-owned network's presentation, garnered his biggest laughs with a jab at his British boss, Paul Lee. "I actually have a question for Paul: Did you really have, an offer from the BBC, or was it one of those things when you send flowers to yourself at work? Paul decided to stay because, in the end, ABC has something that the BBC will never have: dental," he said from the Lincoln Center stage May 15. The following day, O'Brien grabbed his share of chuckles when he suggested he had stumbled upon Craigslist ads from the industry’s top players, including Oprah Winfrey (“For Sale: Controlling interest in OWN. $10 or best offer") and Disney’s Bob Iger (Seeking: East African village willing to accept 5 million John Carter T-shirts. Size XXL).
Warner Bros. TV: In the studio sales derby, Warners leads the pack with nine series pickups (besting No. 2 Universal Television, with eight). Chief Peter Roth sold shows to all five broadcast networks. Among them: eight dramas, including J.J. Abrams' The Revolution at NBC and Fox's Kevin Bacon thriller The Following, both particularly well received during their presentations, and one comedy, CBS' Partners from Will & Grace's Max Mutchnick and David Kohan. At UTA's May 13 kickoff bash, Roth began doling out his famous hugs.
Uber-producers: With pickups for The Carrie Diaries and Cult, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage's Fake Empire continues to expand. The duo will have four series on The CW, including rising sophomore drama Hart of Dixie and the final season of Gossip Girl. Matching them in series orders is Greg Berlanti, who scored pickups at CW (Arrow) and CBS (Golden Boy), which join USA's upcoming drama Political Animals on Berlanti's résumé. (Sources suggest his legal drama pilot Guilty at Fox still has a shot at survival as well.) While no one else scored multiple orders, Kevin Williamson (The Following), Ryan Murphy (The New Normal) and Abrams added projects to their full portfolios.
Dick Wolf: The longtime NBC producer remains in a position of power. Despite ratings erosion for the sole survivor of the Law & Order franchise, SVU nabbed another season, bringing the show's total to 14. The network picked up another Wolf hour, the action drama Chicago Fire, and its sister studio, Universal Television, rewarded him with a new three-year overall deal. And the drama veteran has broken into reality with his first major unscripted project, a Mark Burnett/Wolf-produced military challenge series titled Stars Earn Stripes. Ka-ching, ka-ching.
Simon Cowell: Sure, The X Factor fell below ratings expectations and Cowell was forced to ax much of his cast. But the V-necked star-producer still dominated upfront headlines by milking the drama surrounding the show's two new judges. When Britney Spears and Demi Lovato were trotted out onstage, the Beacon Theatre lit up like a rock concert -- even Madison Avenue veterans whipped out phones to snap pics.
Simon Cowell: But... Last year, Cowell foolishly set the bar for his singing competition at 20 million viewers. His new mantra? To "seriously kick butt." But by failing to meet expectations, the sense of disappointment around X Factor could be hard to shake. And the brief appearance by a notably uncomfortable Spears had one observer refer to her as a "hot mess." Of course, that could be exactly what Cowell wants, but he might overshoot the mark.
NBC: Greenblatt acknowledged that he faces a tough battle. But given the holes the fourth-place network has to fill -- it picked up 11 pilots -- NBC couldn't make its presentation short and sweet. Even suppliers of shows to the network commented that the presentation, which lasted nearly two hours, was flat. Neither Greenblatt nor his No. 2, Jennifer Salke, seemed totally comfortable on the big Radio City Music Hall stage. Greenblatt gamely tried to poke fun at his love of musical theater but lamented to his audience, "I'm not getting any laughs out of you today."
Dish's Auto Hop: Dish Network's consumer-friendly ad-blocking feature racked up powerful enemies during upfront week. CBS' Moonves told reporters he'd consider responding by not making his network's fare available to Dish's 14 million-plus subscribers. "How does [Dish chairman]Charlie Ergen expect me to produce CSI without commercials?" he asked. Moonves joined other high-powered execs, including NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert, who offered harsh words about the service during his upfront speech May 14: 'Just because technology gives you the ability to do something, does that mean you should? Not always."
Kiefer Sutherland: Despite an exhausting dash around the globe this year to promote midseason entry Touch, Sutherland saw his series relegated to unfamiliar turf: TV's Friday night graveyard. At least it was renewed. But Reilly noted that he has talked to creator Tim Kring about creative tweaks for the second season, which will be paired with chronically low-rated Fringe. And after years of being a fixture at the Fox upfront, the former Jack Bauer was a no-show.
Community: Sure, the low-rated comedy got renewed, a feat in itself. But like Touch, it has been moved to Friday nights. And no matter how determined Greenblatt sounds when he professes a "build it and they will come" strategy, Friday (particularly Community's early 8 p.m. hour) is still a no-man's land for TV viewing. Add to that creator-showrunner Dan Harmon's uncertain status. "I expect Dan's voice to be a part of this show somehow," Greenblatt said. "I'm just not sure if that means him running it day-to-day or consulting on it." Not a ringing endorsement.
CSI: Miami: And then there were two. Days before CBS' May 16 upfront, the network announced its long-running spinoff CSI: Miami was getting the boot. The irony is that the 10-season series was just named a finalist for the Monte Carlo Television Festival's International TV Audience Award. In fact, Miami, the franchise's renewed mothership and the NY installment are in a three-way race for the title of world's most-watched drama.
-- Marisa Guthrie contributed to this report.