For a few days this week, as they do each May, the broadcast television networks will produce the kind of lavish all-star spectaculars that fell out of favor about the time the novelty of TV in color wore off.
From the stages of Radio City Music Hall, from Carnegie Hall, from Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall and other glam locales around Manhattan, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and even the CW will put on big-budget productions overstuffed with celebs, pop music acts and comedy shtick. But these are shows very few people actually see.
The audience is by invitation only, both in person and at select viewing parties in Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit.
This is where people learn whether NBC is canceling "Crossing Jordan," where ABC will put its "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff, how Fox will make do when it's not airing ratings juggernaut "American Idol," why the CW thinks it can make inroads and what amusing new and clever way CBS boss Leslie Moonves will take shots at the other networks.
Every year there are grumbles among the Madison Avenue crowd, usually over the free booze and shrimp at the requisite post-presentation parties, that the process is outdated, that it doesn't match companies' fiscal years, that it's silly to put money down on new shows and network schedules so far in advance. Every year, like swallows to Capistrano, they return.
"It works for the broadcast networks, and the thing is, these upfront presentations are well attended every year," said Brad Adgate, director of research for Horizon Media. "It's tougher and tougher for people to get in. It's not just buyers anymore like it used to be. Clients want to go. Research people like me go. Financial people go. Trade reporters go. I wouldn't say it's become better, but it's certainly become bigger in terms of attendees."
For all the excitement, such as it is, the expectation is advertisers, who committed about $9.1 billion during last year's network upfront selling season, will spend the same or less this year because overall viewership is down 3 percent.
NBC, once perennially No. 1 but in its third successive season in fourth place, behind CBS, ABC and Fox, is first out of the blocks with a Monday presentation at Radio City Music Hall. It's followed by ABC on Tuesday and CBS on Wednesday, concluding with Fox and the CW on Thursday.
My Network TV, which, like the CW, launched last season, has decided to try to make its pitch in more intimate meetings with ad buyers, which makes sense as its viewing audience is far smaller, too.
Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, has more than a dozen CW affiliates, including WGN-Ch. 9, as well as several Fox affiliates, two My Network TV affiliates and one ABC station. So its interests are across the board.
Since there is an element of showmanship to these upfront affairs, some networks, and CBS particularly, try to keep their schedule decisions under wraps until the big presentation. Other times decisions on what to cancel and what to pick up aren't finalized until the 11th hour. Advance word does leak out, however, from studios, agents and even the networks themselves.
NBC has renewed the low-rated but critically praised rookies "Friday Night Lights" and "30 Rock," embracing the spirit of the early 1980s when, while struggling, it renewed little-watched programs it believed in such as "Hill Street Blues" and "Cheers" and allowed them to build followings.
"Crossing Jordan" appears toast, but it looks as though "Scrubs" is coming back. The fate of the original "Law & Order" was unclear going into the weekend.
Sources say that besides "Chuck" (a computer geek gets to be a hero), "Journeyman" (a guy goes back in time to change things) and "Life" (a cop, unjustly imprisoned, returns to work), NBC will introduce a remake of "The Bionic Woman." The network also has a drama from "Sex and the City" author Candace Bushnell about three New York City women called "Lipstick Jungle," starring Brooke Shields.
Answering that challenge, ABC is said to be picking up its own variation on the theme, "Cashmere Mafia," from Darren Star, the man who developed "Sex and the City" for television. It stars Lucy Liu.
Along with the "Grey's" spinoff, "Private Practice," insiders say it also appears ABC has picked up "Dirty Sexy Money" (an idealistic lawyer inherits his late dad's suspect rich client), "Eli Stone" (another lawyer show), "Women's Murder Club" (based on the series of James Patterson mysteries), "Pushing Daisies" (a romantic procedural drama) and "Big Shots" (about wild CEOs).
Prospective ABC comedies are said to include "Carpoolers" (about men who commute together), "Sam I Am" (an amnesiac awakens from a coma and learns she wasn't very nice) and "Cavemen" (based on the Geico insurance mascot).
At Fox, which will have more room to maneuver in the fall (or pre-"American Idol" season) because it's going to carry less post-season baseball than in recent years, the comedy "'Til Death" has been renewed. The CW, which dumped "Gilmore Girls," is looking very hard at "Gossip Girl," a teen drama from "The O.C." creator Josh Schwartz. Moonves told analysts CBS doesn't have that many holes.
TV's prime time to sell
Former "Must See" network NBC is suffering its 3rd successive 4th-place finish behind CBS, ABC and Fox. Which of its shows will be returning in the fall in its fight to climb in the ratings?
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