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NBC, All Quiet on the Network Upfront

By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, May 12, 2008

NEW YORK

Today marks the first day of the broadcast TV Upfront Week in which the 4 1/2 networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and CW -- unveil their fall prime-time programming plans to advertisers here.

Historically, Upfront Week is a hectic whirl of marching bands, confetti and balloons, aged rockers performing trademark tunes that have been turned into theme songs for new procedural crime dramas, Broadway musical stars performing songs from their hit shows (whose lyrics have been changed to reflect the miracle of that network's ratings success the previous season), network suits taking stages to give modern interpretations of deer caught in headlights, truckloads of booze, and the wiping out of entire communities of unfortunate shrimp.

This year, however, all that has come to an end. During the darkest days of the writers' strike, NBC announced it would dump this year's upfront presentation altogether because it was no longer relevant. Some industry wags suggested this is what you might expect from the network that's been mired in fourth place for several seasons and does not see the point in spending a bajillion dollars renting Radio City Music Hall and throwing a lavish party afterward to draw attention to the fact.

Another popular theory had NBC Universal higher-ups deciding it was best not to put the network's newish, wild-and-crazy programming chief, Ben Silverman, in front of thousands of station execs, advertisers and press to say God knows what.

[Silverman, who got the job shortly after last year's Upfront presentation, draws closer to the purely loony every day, according to press reports. In an interview with Esquire magazine, he referred to himself as an entrepreneur the likes of which the TV industry hasn't seen in, like, forever, and dismissed the former head of NBC programming (now head of Fox programming) and the current head of ABC programming as "D girls" -- a nasty reference to pretty, powerless chicks who work in the series development departments at networks. After the article came out, causing an industrywide uproar, the too-hip-to-live Silverman said he was naive and had been taken advantage of by the Esquire reporter. The D-girl comment, and possibly the one in which he called the ABC programming chief "sad" and a "loser," were off the record, Silverman said.]

At any rate, NBC bailed on the traditional Upfront presentation and instead, in early April, staged an "infront" presentation. Get it? In front? Of the competition? The "in front" presentation was done on a much smaller scale, with Silverman addressing smaller groups of advertisers and, separately, with the press in a drab conference room at 30 Rock and on the phone.

Today, at what has traditionally been NBC's opening day of Upfront Week, the network will instead host "The NBC Universal Experience," extolling the virtues of all the NBC/Universal properties, including various cable networks, Web operations, amusement parks, etc. "The NBC Universal Experience" will be held in NBC's shop at 30 Rock -- a venue so small that invitees are being given timed tickets. NBC will also hold a news conference today to finally make it official that "Saturday Night Live" alum Jimmy Fallon will get Conan O'Brien's late-night time slot when O'Brien takes over "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno next year.

After NBC radically downgraded its presentation, naturally the other networks followed suit, because if you aren't following the lead of the fourth-place network, who are you going to follow?

Suits from all the networks insist the change had nothing to do with NBC's announcement months ago. They say it's part of their general belt-tightening in the face of a lousy economy. They say the writers' strike crippled the business, compelling them to return many of this year's freshman series for relaunches, leaving few time slots open for new shows in the fall anyway. They say the strike so slowed down pilot production, they won't have much to show advertisers this week and may continue shooting pilots over the summer. One network even considered walking advertisers through its new prime-time schedule without naming which new shows would get the coveted one or two open time slots.

"It's going to be a very different look than we've ever had before," CBS CEO Leslie Moonves warned investors weeks ago of his network's upfront presentation; he promptly cancelled CBS's traditional post-presentation Shrimp Slaughter at Tavern on the Green. And while CBS's Wednesday presentation will once again be given at Carnegie Hall, late-night host Craig Ferguson has been asked to do some standup, replacing the traditional opening extravaganza.

Meanwhile, CW network, which CBS runs with Time Warner, scrubbed its presentation at Madison Square Garden, which is just as well because broadcast TV presentations should never be held at venues in which you do not want to touch the walls -- lends the wrong tone. Instead, CW's presentation will be given at a late-afternoon cocktail party tomorrow under a tent at Lincoln Center.

Likewise, ABC's presentation tomorrow will once again be staged at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, but minus last year's bells and whistles, bingo games and big prime-time-stars production number.

Ironically, Fox, the last network to weigh in at this year's Upfront, is expected on Thursday to throw the most traditional, and entertaining, presentation this year. Of course, Fox is the first-place network and therefore has something to celebrate.

* * *

Meanwhile, details are trickling in as to what few new series will be unveiled this week by the non-NBC networks. Most of the excitement seems to be about what ABC programming chief Steve McPherson will have to say in re Silverman when McPherson announces his network's pickup of NBC's "Scrubs." Plus, there's gobs of buzz congealing around CW's "Beverly Hills, 90210" spinoff, which has added "90210" alum Jennie Garth to the cast. Garth's old character, Kelly Taylor, sadly never left the Zip code but is now all grown up and a guidance counselor -- oh, the irony -- at West Beverly Hills High School.

There's also a certain amount of morbid curiosity about CW's burn-the-furniture-to-heat-the-house plans to outsource its Sunday prime time to the production house-cum-ad agency Media Rights Capital, in partnership with Tribune Broadcasting. Not coincidentally, Tribune owns the CW stations in critical TV markets, including No. 1-ranked New York and No. 2-ranked Los Angeles, without which CW is pretty much out of business.

Fox is expected to wax enthusiastic about J.J. Abrams's new drama, "Fringe." It's about an FBI agent investigating paranormal phenomena, but it's not an "X-Files" rip-off because the agent is a chick.

"Sit Down, Shut Up" is the latest animated comedy in line for Fox's Sunday slate, from "Arrested Development" 's Mitchell Hurwitz, featuring Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Henry Winkler providing voices of a small-town high school's dysfunctional faculty. There's also a new comedy called "The Inn," about the dysfunctional staff at a hip Manhattan hotel. Not to mention "Cleveland," the spinoff of Seth McFarlane's animated dysfunctional-family sitcom "The Family Guy."

To clear room for all this hilarity, Fox has put out of its misery the comedy "Back to You," about a dysfunctional TV newsroom.

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