What to Expect at Upfronts
The Hollywood Reporter compares what each network has, what they need and what the ad buyers are whispering. (Plus: The parties!)
Television executives are predicting double-digit increases in ad pricing at the annual upfront presentations, set to kick off May 16 in New York. But a few recent events are causing more than a little uncertainty. The devastation in Japan has taken a bite out of auto advertising, as Japanese carmakers curtail marketing. And the uncertainty surrounding the NFL, which accounts for billions in ad spending each season, is causing the most consternation. Do marketers put those fourth-quarter ad dollars somewhere else, or do they keep the money in reserve in the hope that players and owners reach a deal? Ultimately, of course, the upfront haul comes down to supply and demand. And the irony is that networks can command higher prices while their ratings are falling because marketers need the audience that TV delivers more than ever. "I don't think anybody's disputing increases," says one buyer. But the question is, how high can prices go when the economy is just beginning to recover?
May 17 | 4 P.M. | Avery Fisher Hall
What to Expect Despite new leadership, ABC will again trot out Jimmy Kimmel to steal the show with his biting commentary. The cast of Modern Family is among the talent expected to journey east for (another) meet and greet. But don't expect first-timer Paul Lee to dance with the stars the way his predecessor Steve McPherson once did.
Where They Stand ABC heads into the fall with a lot of holes to fill, thanks to a forgettable season of newcomers including My Generation, The Whole Truth and Shonda Rhimes' midseason offering Off the Map, which is likely off ABC's map for next season. The exception: spring drama Body of Proof, which is poised to return for a second season. ABC is still dependent on aging dramas Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, 20th TV comedy Modern Family and reality franchise Dancing With the Stars. The net is down another 11 percent year-over-year in the advertiser-beloved 18 to 49 demographic, in third place behind Fox and CBS.
What They Need ABC executives have put significant development dollars into comedy and are banking that Home Improvement's Tim Allen can make a triumphant -- or at least respectable -- return to the network with his untitled comedy pilot. Buyers tell THR that they were impressed by Lee's track record at ABC Family, where he forged a cohesive brand identity for the net, and are looking for at least one breakout hit from him on his first development cycle as head of ABC. One question: How much rope is Disney's Anne Sweeney allowing him?
Likely on the Schedule Expect ABC to launch a second night of comedy on Tuesdays, possibly kicking off at 8 p.m. with Allen's sitcom. The longer-term plan is believed to include adding lower-cost comedies (think $900,000 to $1 million per episode) made in-house as part of a throwback to the old TGIF block. Apartment 23 is said to be a sure thing, with Jenna Elfman's Bad Mom and Suburgatory also in contention. On the drama side, Charlie's Angels and the yet-to-be-renamed Good Christian Bitches are said to be locks. Sources say Brothers and Sisters will likely call it quits after one last truncated season, and others suggest that Once Upon a Time, Pan Am, The River, Identity, Poe and Rhimes' Scandal are still in play. If the dance-themed drama Grace swings a pickup, it will only be to pair with Dancing With the Stars.
BY THE NUMBERS: -10% Aggregate decline among the five nets in the 18-49 demo
May 18 |4 P.M. | Carnegie Hall
What to Expect Heard any good Charlie Sheen jokes? Don't be surprised if Nina Tassler doesn't telling any as she introduces a Sheen-free Two and a Half Men. Otherwise, stability is again the CBS watchword. The net may skew older than its rivals, but it knows how to deliver to its viewers.
Where They Stand CBS has a collection of top performers, including NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, along with Chuck Lorre's other laughers The Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly. Freshman drama Hawaii Five-O also has snagged viewers and a syndication deal worth $2 million-plus per episode. CBS is ranked No. 2 in the 18 to 49 demo (down 9 percent), but it will finish the season at No. 1 in total viewers.
What They Need Despite the Two and a Half Men drama, CBS remains stable and successful, if not particularly sexy. And buyers expect the network to have no trouble selling the retooled Men to advertisers. "No one is going in thinking it has a negative connotation now," says one buyer. "I don't think anybody's pulling out of it."
Likely on the Schedule Rumblings of disappointing comedy development and Tassler's desire for a medical drama have leaked out the net's famous "cone of silence." Sources say that cop drama The 2-2 (formerly Rookies) is a favorite, with the recently recut Susannah Grant doctor drama looking strong. J.J. Abrams' Person of Interest, Minnie Driver's Hail Mary and Sarah Michelle Gellar's The Ringer are similarly in play. To make room, prepare to bid farewell to buddy law drama The Defenders. With $#*! My Dad Says, Mad Love and Rules of Engagement on the bubble, there are potential openings for Two Broke Girls, David Hornsby's How to Be a Gentleman and Peter Knight's very-much-alive Worked Up.
May 16 | 4 P.M. | New Beacon Theater
What to Expect Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly has some big shows to launch: the pricey time-travel epic Terra Nova and Simon Cowell's return to U.S. TV with The X Factor. Expect Cowell to engage in a major charm offensive, with Paula Abdul by his side, and to pretend he's not obsessed with the ratings of American Idol and/or The Voice. With few hours open on the fall schedule (the News Corp. net doesn't program at 10 p.m.), Reilly likely will tout the success of the rebooted Idol and stress the network's No. 1 status among advertiser-beloved younger viewers.
Where They Stand Although Fox continues to print money with its animated offerings on Sundays, the net is still looking to build its live-action comedy lineup (Raising Hope and Breaking In have fans, and the network believes they can build an audience if given time). The season's new drama offerings proved disappointing, with critically acclaimed Lone Star yanked after two low-rated episodes and midseason entry The Chicago Code just muddling along. Friday drama Fringe will be back, but the fates of Code, Human Target and Lie to Me are in question. Luckily, Idol, Glee and Seth MacFarlane keep Fox young; it's down 5 percent in the coveted demo, but the other nets have fallen more.
What They Need "I think they would be a lot happier right now if a couple of those shows from last year had developed a little better," says Todd Gordon, an ad buyer at Initiative. Still, if the costly Terra Nova works, Fox execs will have bet huge and won. And if X Factor retains a good chunk of the Idol audience, all the better.
Likely on the Schedule The net is short on scripted openings, but Reilly is expected to pick up Ethan Hawke's Exit Strategy, and a source says Kiefer Sutherland's midseason entry Touch is already hiring writers. Weekends at Bellevue could get a pickup as a House complement -- and potential successor. On the comedy side, Joe Port and Joe Wiseman's Family Album and the Zooey Deschanel vehicle The New Girl are considered sure things, with I Hate My Teenage Daughter still in play. The animated series Allen Gregory and Napoleon Dynamite are likely to roll out in the fall and winter, respectively.
May 16 | 11 A.M. | Hilton New York
What to Expect The upfront will mark NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt's debut as the face of the troubled network. Look for him to acknowledge the Peacock's ratings struggles (might we suggest a Paul Reiser Show joke?) and push a "rebuilding" theme while stars including Community's Joel McHale and Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler provide comic relief.
Where They Stand NBC can be forgiven for singing the praises of The Voice -- without the red-hot competition series, Greenblatt wouldn't have much to tout as he takes the Hilton stage to kick off the week. Despite high-profile attempts from Jerry Bruckheimer (The Chase) and J.J. Abrams (Undercovers) to reboot a network that has spent half a decade in the ratings basement, NBC is poised to finish another season in fourth place. Similarly troubling, comedy staples 30 Rock and The Office are aging, and the latter lost its star (Steve Carell). (Both shows, along with Parks and Recreation and Community, already have been renewed.) Also not getting any younger are the Biggest Loser, Apprentice and Law & Order franchises. (L&O: Los Angeles is probably doomed.) Without the Olympics to lift its ratings, NBC is down 15 percent in the 18 to 49 demo this season.
What They Need Greenblatt gets a free pass this year: If there's a big hit among his offerings, he'll get credit; if nothing works, he can blame the previous regime. He's been pushing the rebuilding theme in his meetings with Madison Avenue, and buyers seem to have confidence in him. Ted Harbert, former Comcast Entertainment Group head and current chairman of NBC Broadcasting, also has cultivated deep relationships in the ad community. Still, the duo has little to push outside of The Voice. "It only takes one hit sometimes to get a network back on track," notes an ad buyer. But while most of the broadcasters can claim success in unscripted fare, the priority is the higher ad rates that scripted shows deliver. And fortunately for the bean counters at NBC, the latter is Greenblatt's forte (he's said to be leaving unscripted to reality chief Paul Telegdy).
Likely on the Schedule Working in NBC's favor is a new boss who is alluring to talent and producers, which hasn't been the case since Kevin Reilly left four years ago. Greenblatt is expected to add to the schedule the Steven Spielberg-produced musical Smash, which he developed while at Showtime, as well as Maria Bello's Prime Suspect reboot, the Inception-style thriller Awake (formerly REM) and the internationally financed TV adaptation of John Grisham's The Firm. Safe bets on the comedy side are the Whitney Cummings project, Chelsea Handler's Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea and Emily Spivey's Alpha Mom, starring Will Arnett and Christina Applegate. Meanwhile, Bent and the dramas Reconstruction, The Playboy Club and Stephen Gaghan's Metro (formerly S.I.L.A.) -- which a source described as potentially "too smart" -- are all still in play. Parenthood and Harry's Law will likely stay while The Event and Outsourced fall off. But the biggest question mark is the NFL lockout, which could strip the net of its Sunday Night Football juggernaut as well as its Super Bowl boost.
BY THE NUMBERS: $10 Billion+: Analysts believe the Big 4 upfront market could eclipse the 2004 record of about $9.5 billion
► The CW
May 19 | 11 A.M. | Time Warner Center
What to Expect This will mark Dawn Ostroff's swan song as the longest-serving network chief of the current broadcast crop as she passes the baton to her successor, Mark Pedowitz. Both are expected to present.
Where They Stand Another trying season for the younger-skewing net, with such modestly rated series as The Vampire Diaries and America's Next Top Model propping it up. While there were no instant flameouts like the previous year's The Beautiful Life, freshman entries Nikita and Hellcats failed to reach hit status. In recent years, the CW has been criticized for lining its schedule with too much of the same (see serialized dramas like 90210). While relatively steady in total viewers, the net is rounding out the season down 10 percent among the 18 to 49 set.
What They Need The network's survival is perpetually the subject of debate. But for advertisers, the CW offers something its broadcast competition does not: younger, female-skewing viewers. "If you're representing a fashion-conscious brand, there aren't that many shows out there that feel right," Initiative's Gordon says. The network also gets props from buyers for its multiplatform sales approach that includes putting the same ad load in online episodes and TV counterparts. In development meetings with buyers, Ostroff stressed the net's desire for diversification and more repeatable franchise fare.
Likely on the Schedule With Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries and 90210 already renewed, the CW doesn't have much space for experimentation. That said, expect to see both Kevin Williamson's Secret Circle and Hart of Dixie (from Gossip Girl's Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage) on the schedule. Heavenly and Cooper & Stone could make it as well. Nikita is expected to return (among other things, its star Maggie Q offers international appeal), with perennial bubble show One Tree Hill likely to join it, according to sources. Rather than rely almost exclusively on serialized dramas set in tony worlds, the CW will attempt more stand-alone offerings. Hence a development season filled with doctors, detectives and lawyers.