Unraveling the mysteries of the upfronts

THE MOST ILLUMINATING aspect of the recent papal succession was the quarter-century interlude since the ritual’s last enactment, demonstrating how news has devolved — unwittingly highlighted by the cable nets’ wacky Vatican vigils — since John Paul II took over.

By contrast, the snowballing media overkill that characterizes most significant events occurs in slow motion and thus less conspicuously, sliding a little further every year, as will surely be evident during the major networks’ fall “upfront” presentations next week in New York.

It wasn’t so long ago that major media outlets devoted minimal attention to this annual boon to party planners. Before then, if memory serves, only Variety and the Hollywood Reporter even bothered attempting to sniff out what the revised fall lineups would look like before the networks unveiled them.

Yet like everything else, the yawning maw of 24-hour news and obsession with “pop culture” has transformed the upfronts into a source of fascination — one that must be chronicled with all the pomp and circumstance of a papal coronation. Indeed, you half expect CNN and Fox News to position cameras outside Rockefeller Center and West 57th St., waiting for Leslie Moonves or Jeff Zucker to emerge in flowing robes from their network’s Manhattan enclaves and announce, “We have a schedule!”

OF COURSE, the schedule-setting game has grown considerably more complex since the days when Fred Silverman or Brandon Tartikoff cobbled them together. Although less than a generation has passed, back then networks were true gatekeepers of a finite number of pipes into living rooms, as opposed to another arrow in a media giant’s teeming quiver. As such, deciphering what series get placed where today often requires the ability to penetrate the surface and identify unseen motivators, such as corporate ownership, which can cruelly (or unjustly) determine a show’s fate.

Alas, that’s a rather tepid discussion for the purpose of galvanizing the unwashed masses, which is why the media’s newfound preoccupation with the upfronts invariably infuses them with all kinds of overstated importance, ignoring the ghosts of upfronts past. So newspapers stretch to make sweeping pronouncements about what the public wants in the post-Sept. 11 age (evidence-encrusted corpses, if the franchising of cop shows is any indication), balanced by human-interest oddities regarding the die-hard fans whose voices are magnified by the Internet.

To witness an example of such bogus trend-spotting, look no further than Monday’s New York Times, which featured the provocative headline “Cable Shows are Stealing Male Viewers From Broadcast TV.”

Small problem: Even the Nielsen data cited don’t support that assertion, with networks attracting 1.9 million men age 18-34 this season, down — if you can call it that — from 2 million last year. Meanwhile, cable’s “success” amounts to an aggregate 5% gain. In polling, that would fall within a statistical margin for error.

Magazines, meanwhile, delve into trends about the metamorphosis of the TV biz or deliver in-depth looks at execs charged with shepherding along programming operations, eager to provide a glimpse into this high-stakes and outwardly glamorous world.

As for the syndicated TV mags, the upfront will be an opportunity to breathlessly pant about “your favorite shows,” offering “exclusive” chats with “hot stars” who spoke just as “exclusively” with every other show. Hard as it is to imagine that genre hit its nadir last week, when “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider” alluded to the controversy surrounding “American Idol” judge Paula Abdul without inconveniencing correspondent Paula Abdul by soliciting a comment from her, instead directing softball questions at her hairdresser. Perhaps they should have simply rerun their Mary Kay Letourneau interview.

IN SHORT, expect more time than ever to rain down upon TV’s traditional dog-and-pony show with less real understanding — the perfect symbol for an age that regularly traffics in heat without light and confuses volume with substance.

The networks, for once, should be forgiven for their role in fostering any hyperbole, conspiring as they are to wring as much cash as they can out of Madison Avenue. That, after all, is the principal purpose for this traveling carnival, whatever significance others might ascribe to it.

News outlets, however, deserve no such absolution when they gaze into the TV clouds and either cynically or naively concoct a divine plan for their pattern. Because as we saw during the latest circus outside the Vatican, when the flames of competition burn too intensely, the smoke gets in your eyes.

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