Networks eye rebound at upfronts

Enemy seen as 'cable and Guitar Hero'

It’s no coincidence that Turner’s cablers chose this year to move in on the big guys at the upfronts.

In some ways, TNT and TBS looked more like broadcast networks than the broadcasters themselves during Turner Entertainment’s May 14 presentation at the Hammerstein Ballroom — a bold incursion into the week of tubthumping traditionally reserved for broadcasters.

Turner’s nets brought out their stars (Kyra Sedgwick, Holly Hunter) and marquee producers (Steven Bochco, Dean Devlin), showed a bevy of clips and, most important, put the networks on notice: This isn’t just about you anymore.

“Here’s the problem,” lamented one studio exec. “This cable conglomerate just made a more effective and compelling presentation than broadcast.”

Webheads are adjusting to a world in which network TV isn’t the only game in town — and that message was on display to advertisers all week.

Coming off a year of record low ratings and a crushing writers strike, even the bruised and battered broadcasters apparently agree. Peacock’s “NBC Universal Experience” carnival at Rockefeller Center was as much about the corporation’s cable and online properties as it was about the mother ship.

CBS’ event opened with primers on the Eye’s outdoor, radio and new media businesses — and its big announcement wasn’t about signing a big name TV scribe or recruiting a famous thesp for primetime. Nope, it was a new deal with the guys behind online sensation “Lonelygirl15.”

Only then, after 45 minutes, did the net finally turn to discussing its primetime schedule.

“Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels summed it up early in the week. Asked if he worries about potential competition for Conan O’Brien or new host Jimmy Fallon, the latenight maven says he has bigger concerns.

“We’re in a big fight in network TV,” he says. “The enemy isn’t other network TV. It’s cable and ‘Guitar Hero.’ ”

Fox Broadcasting Co. chief Peter Liguori says the networks have no choice but to meet the challenge, now that they’re getting back on stable footing.

“There are two instinctive reactions: fight or flight. We’re going to fight,” Liguori says. “We refuse to let broadcast TV shrink. We’re going to take bold moves to offset that.”

To be fair — and as network sales toppers stressed all week — network TV is still the biggest of the mass media. Upfront advertising sales are expected to take a hit from last year’s nearly $9 billion primetime haul because of the nation’s shaky economic climate.

But the supply-and-demand dynamic that has boosted the Big Four’s fortunes, despite decades of erosion in their market share, is not going to change any time soon. If a national advertiser needs to get the word out on a new car model, or a movie or a new brand of peanut butter, network TV is the place to be.

“The strike only highlighted how important TV is to our viewers,” ABC sales prexy Mike Shaw told his captive aud at the Alphabet’s upfront.

The broadcast webs, of course, were hit hardest by the writers strike — leading to this year’s sea change in how development and the upfronts were handled.

“The strike impacted the entire development process,” Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth says. “What shows didn’t make it because they were rushed, how many pushed to midseason will evaporate, and what is the long term impact on the viewer? Will the audiences come back? I certainly hope so. This made a difficult and challenged landscape even more so.”

CBS fast-tracked its pilots, shooting shorter presentations in some cases, but that allowed the Eye to present the most unaffected sked. ABC decided to push its pilots in the summer, but had the luxury of a relatively small number of scheduling holes — adding just two new shows as a result.

Fox also stuck mostly with stability, saving much of its new fare for midseason. Then there’s NBC, which already announced its sked in April, scheduling shows that haven’t been shot yet.

Some of the changes are temporary — there’s no reason ABC won’t be back to shooting its pilots before upfronts next year. (Alphabet entertainment topper Steve McPherson, who says he’s a “strong believer in the R&D of our business,” promises to do just that.)

 Other changes in how development is done have been touted for years. Most execs welcome the idea of a staggered, year-round season in which they’re not frantically competing for the same talent or production space.

“The compressed schedule forced people to concentrate more and work harder,” CBS topper Leslie Moonves told reporters, and he wasn’t complaining.

But whether that shift will become permanent remains a mystery.

“No one knows,” says CBS Paramount Network TV topper David Stapf. “The inertia of the way it’s been done forever kept forcing everyone to work in the same cycle. Success will come when we can all do this in off cycles.”

Given how well most of these crisis-induced changes were received by the upfront’s core aud — Madison Avenue — it’s doubtful that the biz will ever return to the days of three-hour plus presentations with multiple skits and CEO costume changes.

ABC, CBS, Fox and CW got high marks for stability in skedding. For ABC, CBS and Fox, it’s a sign of the generally solid bench strength that each enjoys, in varying degrees.

But many upfront-goers agreed that NBC’s decision to sit out the traditional presentation this year could have repercussions when the real action of the upfront — the wheeling and dealing on advance ad commitments for the coming season — begins in the next month or so. The Peacock’s new shows and sked moves were not top of mind for most media buyers during the three-day marathon of presentations by the other nets.

CW is also battling image problems within the industry perception problem after getting pummeled in the ratings in its second season on the air. That’s probably a big part of the reason why the netlet stuck with upfront tradition and laid out the booze and finger food for media buyers in a tent erected outside Lincoln Center on May 13.

By contrast, ABC came across as the network to beat next season, as the Alphabet was able to roll out a well-received lineup that looks very similar to its fall 2007 sked.

ABC wasted no opportunity to remind the biz and ad buyers that it was really cooking last fall before the strike hit. CBS focused mostly on filling its scheduling holes, moving just a handful of returning series, while Fox and CW also avoided any major sked shifts.

As for the new shows, nets also played it safe by relying on a huge number of pre-tested concepts. That includes plenty of adaptations of imports from other countries — ABC’s “Life On Mars,” CBS’ “Worst Week,” “Eleventh Hour” and “The Ex-List,” and several previously announced projects on NBC. CW, meanwhile, is producing a new version of “90210,” while “Surviving the Filthy Rich” is based on a book series.

Then there’s all those returnees. Sophomore entries such as NBC’s “Chuck” and “Life,” and ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” and “Dirty Sexy Money” made it back to the sked partly because they aired too few episodes during last year’s strike-induced mini-season for nets to get a good read on the perf.

Consider it TV’s ultimate do-over. And with cable and other platforms breathing down their neck, network execs probably don’t mind turning back the clock.

Rallying the advertisers last week, ABC latenight gabber Jimmy Kimmel, for one, believes it’s not too late for webheads to party like its, oh, 1988 again.

“TV sets are bigger than ever, kids are fatter than ever and gas has never been more expensive,” he quips. “We have the whole country on its couch right now. If we can’t sell TV to them, then we should be ashamed of ourselves.”

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 0

Leave a Reply

No Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

More TV News from Variety