Analysis: 2010 upfronts

Improved outlook at annual presentation to advertisers

The upfronts are like an ancient mating ritual filled with hope and fear. The advertisers are nervous grooms; the new programs are the veiled brides who might turn out to be strong and beautiful but probably are neither.

Still, there is the need to propagate the broadcast species. And despite the challenges facing the big networks in this increasingly fragmented world, the prevailing wisdom at this week's upfronts was that this will be a better year than last. How much better is not clear.

"We've seen a very strong scatter market, and the economic news, while still a little bit mixed, is generally pretty good," Fox president of sales Jon Nesvig said. "We know there's going to be more money in the upfront."

Looking at the big picture, advertisers seemed relieved to find the networks -- especially NBC -- throwing so much spaghetti at the wall. (Comcast executives Brian Roberts and Steve Burke were in the room during the NBC presentation, and wouldn't everyone love to know what they thought? They weren't telling.)

Media Link chairman Michael Kassan observed that the upfront presentations were noticeably streamlined with fewer charts and graphs, but the networks showed they are willing to spend in pursuit of strong programming. "I think it was convincing," he said. "TV events still draw big eyeballs."
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On a less positive note, advertisers seemed to feel that much of what was on offer didn't look especially fresh or tempting. "I haven't seen a lot of stuff that makes my head spin," one media buyer said. Another speculated that after CBS took big, unsuccessful risks with such shows as "Viva Laughlin" and "Swingtown" a couple of seasons ago, the networks grew more inclined to "clone what they've got" that works.

Certainly there was a proliferation of police procedurals, doctor shows and legal dramas on the menus. Jimmy Kimmel made the point in his biting routine during the ABC presentation: "I think (ABC Entertainment president) Steve McPherson said it best when he said we're looking at shows that break the mold and then introduced a new medical drama from Shonda Rhimes."

Still, there were some bold moves. CBS was the Jack Kevorkian of the broadcast world, euthanizing seven shows (including the not-yet-dead "Ghost Whisperer" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine"). And the network dared to move blazing-hot "The Big Bang Theory" to 8 p.m. Thursdays to promote what must be the first Twitter-inspired program in primetime: "$#*! My Dad Says," starring William Shatner. (And yes, though she hesitated, CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler said the S-word when discussing the show during the network's traditional breakfast with reporters. She said the series will be referred to as "Bleep My Dad Says" on the air.)

Fox reportedly plans to shell out $4 million an episode for "Terra Nova," a time-travel family adventure series that will turn up midseason. "It's a very big bet," Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly said. "This thing is going to be huge. It's going to take an enormous production commitment." The series seems unlikely to resemble anything else on the air, and with Steven Spielberg and former Fox president Peter Chernin involved, it will generate "a lot of intrigue," Reilly predicted. What flavor of intrigue remains to be seen.

All of the networks are looking to build their comedy schedules, but despite the time, energy and talk poured into comedy -- Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Rice cited "an energy and a reinvigoration" of the genre on broadcast television -- the momentum did not seem especially strong when schedules were revealed. The exception was CBS, with its surprise attack on Thursdays.

NBC's plan to launch a new comedy beachhead was dialed back to a hope of finding at least one successful new show. The network is putting its chips on "Outsourced," about a young American man sent to oversee a call center in India. It got the plum spot behind "The Office" at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays, but when clips were shown, it didn't bring forth gales of laughter. And only one of three comedies previewed by ABC seemed to play well: "Better Together," set for 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays.

When it comes to drama, the networks are in a bind and on a forced march to throw money at 10 p.m., even though the scripted hours the time slot demands fail fairly consistently. All networks except Fox are fighting a costly battle against incursions of cable into the territory as well as the "DVR channel."

ABC scheduler Jeff Bader said his network's decision to throw its effort into 10 p.m. "makes as much sense as throwing into any time period. It's a very risky business."

He noted that all networks are trying to program the traditionally dead zone of Friday nights, too.

NBC, which had declared 10 p.m. so dead that it tried going with Jay Leno five nights a week, said money from cable retransmission fees will help cover costs at some point, though not this year or next.

NBC is the network with the biggest uphill battle to fight. It went for a note of humility as it tried to work its way back into the good graces of the creative and advertising communities by unsaying pretty much everything it has said during the past couple of years. Rather than "managing for margins," as the old mantra had it, primetime entertainment president Angela Bromstad said the network has concluded that "nurturing quality ultimately pays off in the ratings."

ABC's "Better Together"

Self-deprecating humor can be disarming, but NBC probably hit that note a little too often. Executives made wistful jokes about finding themselves at the Hilton instead of the network's former venue at Radio City Music Hall (a change that happened as a result of management's short-lived decision that traditional upfronts were for old-school losers).

"The Milman bar mitzvah is in Ballroom C," NBC Universal television chief Jeff Gaspin joked to groans.

The network's biggest hope in the drama department is "The Event," a political thriller set for 9 p.m. Mondays. NBC is counting on the show to attract audiences left homeless after "Lost," "24" and "Heroes" conclude their runs. The clips got a respectful response from advertisers, though, of course, clips are notoriously misleading.

The mood at the Fox presentation was far more ebullient. The network is high on the success of "Glee," and the appearance of the cast onstage seemed to give advertisers a contact high. Fox doesn't have many hours to fill in the fall and could spend time reminding advertisers that it is No. 1 by various measures. The network stressed that audiences love television and argued that broadcast is a better environment for advertisers than cable.

Fox is spreading the word that the show to watch is "Lonestar," which it calls a "modern-day 'Dallas.' " It got a reasonably warm reception, largely because of the appeal of cute-guy lead James Wolk. The sitcom "Raising Hope" played well and is getting a strong push, scheduled behind "Glee" at 9 p.m. Tuesdays. "Running Wilde," a weird new show from "Arrested Development" creator Mitch Hurwitz, seemed to perplex the audience.

If Fox's presentation was celebratory, then ABC's seemed muted and stressed. Given its ties to Apple, Disney-owned ABC spent the most time emphasized the Internet and its "content ecosystem," in the memorable phrase of sales chief Geri Wang.

ABC introduced four new dramas and four new comedies. But with several of its existing shows on the wane ("Desperate Housewives," "Private Practice," "Brothers and Sisters"), launching new shows and building a schedule will be a tough climb. With the exception of "Better Together," the network's new programs did not seem to captivate advertisers.

CBS came on like gangbusters, essentially when it explained that it had pulled the plug on many shows in pursuit of "aggressive stability," as scheduling chief Kelly Kahl put it. "We call it the network circle of life," he said. A standout among the network's new shows could be the "Hawaii Five-O" revamp, set for 10 p.m. Mondays.

Despite the sense that this year's ad market will be improved, Kassan cautioned that networks should not overreach with pricing. "The broadcasters need to be thoughtful in how they approach a robust market," he said. "This is a time to look at the next quarter but also to look at next year."

In other words, the networks shouldn't squeeze too hard at a time when it is ever easier for advertisers to take their precious dollars elsewhere.

Kim Masters is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.