Upfront presentations have to be graded on a curve, so I begin my annual scorecard with relatively passable marks for Fox — which, with NBC doing its "in-front" shtick, essentially opened the broadcast festivities on Monday.
There wasn't much of a wow factor in either Fox's presentation or the programs displayed, based (an inexact science at best) on the brief new-series previews that the network showed. Indeed, if there's any headline out of Fox it's that the network has largely stood pat, trotting out relatively few new programs, despite Fox Entertainment Prez Kevin Reilly's pledge that Fox wouldn't use its frontrunning status thanks to "American Idol" to hide behind its big lead.
In terms of upcoming programs, Fox got the most mileage out of its musical "Glee," including a rousing live number to showcase the series. The new sitcom "Brothers" and animated spinoff "The Cleveland Show" each generated a few laughs, which is a few more than the preview of "Sons of Tucson" could muster.
On the drama front, Fox clearly wants to leverage "Idol" again, as it did this year to establish two mediocre dramas, "Fringe" and "Lie to Me." Notably, both of those new one-hour entries will arrive at midseason to cash in on "Idol's" benevolent lead-ins and promotional base.
Alas, "Past Life" looks like another "The X-Files Lite" entry, though God knows Fox has gotten enough mileage out of that formula. The potential breakthrough in the bunch would appear to be "Human Target," which stars Mark Valley as a bodyguard for hire. If the show can maintain the snazzy look and tone of the presentation, the series might fill a breezy action niche that's been long dormant.
As for the presentation itself, which I watched at a closed-circuit feed in L.A. where the sound was slightly off, there wasn't much sizzle. Fox seemed to miss an opportunity in failing to bring out Wanda Sykes — the host of a new weekly latenight program premiering in November – to provide some stand-up fresh off her newsmaking turn at the White House correspondents dinner. The opening was also flat, with too much "network TV is still king" cheerleading from Fox sales chief Jon Nesvig and newly arrived Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice.
For his part, Nesvig couldn't even utter the word "recession," referring only to looking forward to teaming with advertisers as we approach "the coming recovery." I get that the glass is always half full at these things, but geez.
Rice did make one interesting point by citing how the "Idol" audience is equivalent to the entire boxoffice haul for "Iron Man" if you charged $10 for each of those viewers — an observation I've frequently used in the past to demonstrate TV's reach. But I have a suspicion most of those watching were thinking, "So what?" It's an interesting cultural touchstone but in this context doesn't have much to do with negotiating ad buys.
So all told, a couple of promising-looking shows, a few more that didn't look quite so promising, and a relatively short (about 75 minutes, by my count) presentation, for a lineup that appears to be saying to the rest of the TV world, "We're ahead, and we've got the ball. If you want it, you're going to have to take it away from us, because we're not taking any risks." Not the worst strategy in this environment, but nothing to knock me off the uncomfortable wooden chairs that they put out for us in L.A.
Overall grade, subject to revision: C+