March 11 marked the return of the annual Upfront week, when Manhattan’s bedbugs roll up their sleeves and whole nations of shrimp prepare to meet their maker, as media buyers, station execs and the press parachute in to watch the broadcast networks, and some cable nets too, unveil their primetime plans for next season.
The week has become an endurance test as more non-broadcast networks muscle their way into the schedule. Several years ago TNT and TBS crashed the party arguing they were, in fact, running with the big boys. This year, Turner’s Adult Swim, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, CNN, HLN, TBS, TNT, truTV and Turner Sports joined hands with TBS and TNT for one gimongous Turner Upfront on Wednesday, at Madison Square Garden. Similarly, NBCU Cable Entertainment Group last year combined its entire family of networks for an Upfront-palooza at the Javitz Center. In the past, each of those cable nets had held individual presentations during the February to May pre-Upfront period. The more cluttered the week becomes, the more critical to participants’ survival become sensible shoes and nimble bartenders.
Historically, Upfront week was a whirl of marching bands, confetti, balloons and aged rockers performing flagship tunes that had been turned into theme songs for new procedural crime dramas. Classing up the joint, Broadway musical stars performed songs from their hit shows, the lyrics changed to reflect the miracle of that network’s ratings success. Programming chiefs gave interesting modern interpretations of deer-caught-in-headlights while performing motivational-speaker hand gestures. Each day concluded with gatherings involving boatloads of liquor and the ceremonial sacrifice of entire communities of innocent crustaceans.
It’s hard to believe the Upfronts nearly went away a few years ago. During the darkest days of the 2008 writers strike, NBC announced it would forgo Upfront week, deeming it irrelevant. Some industry wags suggested this was what you might expect from the network that had been mired in fourth place for several seasons—particularly one whose newish programming chief was likely to say god-knows-what to a Radio City Music Hall filled with media buyers. In an Esquire interview he’d dismissed the heads of Fox and ABC programming as “D girls.”
Other broadcast networks radically down-scaled their productions that year, calling it part of a general belt-tightening in the face of a lousy economy, and the business-crippling strike. CBS canceled its traditional post-presentation party at Tavern on the Green; ABC drastically toned down its schedule unveiling, though thankfully hung on to Jimmy Kimmel’s seventh-inning stretch—an Upfront highlight that since has been imitated, but not yet equaled, by other networks’ late-night hosts during their employers’ at bats. (Kimmel’s got some stiff competition—new CBS late night host Stephen Colbert played a role in that network’s Wednesday presentation at Carnegie Hall.)
Since that bleak era, Upfront week has clawed its way back, and NBC returned, though it still falls short of its glorious, glamorous, orgy-of-excess days. Donald Trump brought national attention to the annual event in 2011, when he announced at the end of NBC’s presentation, “I will not be running for president—see you for a great season!” The previous afternoon, NBC had said it would bring back Celebrity Apprentice in the first quarter of 2012, with or without Trump—who was threatening to run as a Republican presidential candidate.
Now, more than ever, the importance of the venue to the optics of a presentation—and to the survival of attendees—cannot be overstated. CBS, for instance, has outgrown Carnegie Hall in terms of the number of media buyers, station execs and reporters who want to attend. Still, CBS returned this year because, well, it’s Carnegie Hall.
Upfront veterans still shudder if you mention 2006, when Fox moved its presentation to the Armory on Lexington Avenue. The crowd nearly shut down traffic, security guards seemed overwhelmed, attendees couldn’t find seats, the program started half an hour late and media buyers became very cranky. Reading the room, American Idol judge Simon Cowell declared it “the most bored audience I have seen in years,” while House’s Hugh Laurie asked if audience members were hoping the day would never end.
A Fox exec tried to liven things up—though one press report described it as being “too relaxed” onstage—by repeatedly mispronouncing “Tostitos” as he discussed the brand’s Fox Sports sponsorship, finally declaring the name silly as reporters took energetic notes. Lost in the translation: Fox was about to be crowned demo winner for a second consecutive season, which back then was big news for the net.
And last year’s Upfront week got off to a grueling start when attendees wilted in the hot sun for an hour, waiting to get into NBC’s presentation. That year the confab was held at the Javitz Center, in what Seth Meyers described as “the heart of New York’s historical Stabbing District.” NBC had given up its tony Radio City Music Hall venue when it declared Upfront Week irrelevant and Javitz was considered a slight upgrade from the midtown hotel conference room where NBC held its presentation the year Trump declared his non-candidacy. This year the week again kicked off at NBC, with Dolly Parton singing “I Will Always Love You” accompanied on the piano by NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt—at Radio City Music Hall, where NBC belongs.