Failure Analysis: The Upfronts Cycle of Death

Broadcast networks need to remember they are not the NFL. And break the cycle.
AP Images

Once the National Football League pushed its lengthy but popular hot air balloon known as the NFL Draft into May, it aligned rather nicely with television’s upfronts presentation – or at least the time before the dog and pony show when all the news about pilot pick-ups and show cancelations leak into the press and bog down Twitter.

The two of these hope-filled but often disappointing processions happening at the same time is, in many ways, apt. It’s a spring rebirth ritual – NFL teams hoping to find young college talent more skilled than the pros it already has (not to mention cheaper), and broadcast networks picking up pilots they hope will be massive hits to replace last year’s failed dreams or, as is often the case, aging and underperforming series that were yesterday’s May flowers.

The promise of tomorrow is always an upbeat thing. The upfronts are about hope. It’s why the networks generally try to conceal the shows they’ve canceled. There isn’t much fanfare about failure. Networks will often confirm canceled shows if you call, but not always. In either case, they don’t send out press releases to tout freshman failure rates that often reach into the high 80 percent range.

No, no, no. They shine the spotlight on star-studded pilots with premises that sound fantastic, from executive producers who have done good work. Everything is a bright shiny present we can open in the fall – and beyond!

People who cover television then tend to write about the casting news, scheduling, premiere dates, etc. Buzz builds. And then the finished product lands on the desk of the country’s television critics And the season begins.


Over at the NFL, draft analysts diagnose body shapes – size, speed, arm length, how much someone can bench press. They have film on key plays each player made in college. There’s talk about closing speed and game speed and being a good fit in the locker room. There are sleepers who are praised as the draft moves into Day 2 and Day 3. Hope is abundant still. There are shocking moments when sure-thing first-round picks fall into the lower rounds. And when it’s all over, sports writers and columnists will assess the winners and losers and evaluate which teams improved and how that will determine their success rate next season.

And then the season begins.


But there’s an enormous difference between these hope-filled, the-future-is-tomorrow spring rituals: And that is there is no competition for the NFL.

If your team cut five really good and very popular players for salary cap reasons and now these highly touted college draft picks are turning out to be busts – and your team stinks and doesn’t make the playoffs – you don’t have a choice. You’ll be back next season, hoping to find a trio of potential Pro Bowlers in the draft. Because the NFL is the only game in town. And you are a loyal fan.

In the television industry, there’s cable. And there’s streaming services – like Netflix and Hulu. And by dint of sheer volume through the years, there are plenty of options on the DVD boxed set front – great shows viewers never got around to but can watch now because they hate your current shows. People don’t need to watch network television. They have an abundance of options. They don't have to be fans of ABC or NBC or Fox or CBS.

Which is why the tumult and turnover of the upfront process – repeated every year in the same manner – is a business disaster (and has been for years). It’s also, however, a by-product of a system that needs voluminous content to sustain itself, and that content, which is pricey, needs millions of devoted viewers to watch it or, again, it can’t be sustained. It can only implode.

So, how does broadcast television keep a loyal and robust audience when every May it cancels so many shows that people like, thus pissing them off and, over a series of repeated instances through the years, drives them away?

Well, that’s simple. It doesn’t.

Which is where we are now. A plethora of options means viewers will eventually get tired of being burned after they watch 13 or 22 episodes of something and then have it taken away (many times, of course, this happens before that full run of episodes is ever completed).

This is a diminishing returns hootenanny we have here. And, this being 2014 instead of the 1990’s, the results are more catastrophically riveting. The overall network audience decreases with the expansion of other options, but the Big Tent business model of reaching a broad audience by supplying that model with numerous incredibly expensive series hasn’t been revolutionized yet, certainly not to any kind of perfection.

So madly creating series, offering them to a dwindling customer base, canceling them in progress or after one season and then repeating the cycle again is insane. It’s asking people to be suckers and dopes eternally. That only works when you’re a monopoly.

And so, as this hellish week of upfront news filters out and annoys the remaining customers – days before they get all the splashy spin about the future – you have to wonder how many more of them will be missing when fall rolls around.

Twitter: @BastardMachine