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Networks shed talk of skeds

Webs downplay p'gramming grid as they tout brand extensions

Somehow amid the glitz and showmanship of the network upfronts, the usual guest of honor turned up missing like the victim in a CBS crime procedural.

Once, upfront week revolved around the vaunted “schedule,” the revered grid showing what is going up against what and in which timeslot. The upfronts were a time for networks to present their strategy and the competitive rationale for their moves, which would then be deconstructed by Madison Avenue and the press.

But at least two nets — NBC and ABC — delivered presentations lst week that say the schedule itself doesn’t really matter, branding it basically irrelevant in the world of TiVo, video streaming and digital downloads.

Indeed, as the networks increasingly become appendages of larger congloms, they act like programming brand managers for star producers like J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer and Aaron Sorkin.

Advertisers at NBC’s upfront had to sit through more than two hours of show clips, followed by an explanation of the net’s digital strategy, before the actual schedule was flashed on the screen as they filed out of Radio City Music Hall.

One of advertising’s leading lights — a man who controls a substantial percentage of U.S. ad spending — told Variety he had to check news reports on his Treo to figure out where NBC’s new shows like “Studio 60” and “Friday Night Lights” were going to land on the schedule.

In Fox’s MyNetworkTV presentation, which focused on the business model not the competitive positions of the shows, one ad exec made her own grid in a spiral notebook.

“What they are trying to do is focus on the product and sell on the quality of the programs before time and place,” says Marc Goldstein, who as CEO of Mindshare North America controls $9 billion in annual ad spending.

“Do I like it? Not really,” he says. “How can you say the schedule doesn’t matter when ‘Studio 60’ is going to face ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘CSI?’ ”

One can understand why NBC might want to take the focus off of its competitive position, especially with so many new series in unprotected timeslots without the benefit of an established lead-in to help launch them.

The only time NBC U TV topper Jeff Zucker mentioned the schedule was to note that it could change once ABC, CBS and Fox make their moves.

But ABC?

The Alphabet made the most gutsy scheduling calls of the upfront, betting “Grey’s Anatomy” can make it a player on Thursday nights for the first time in decades.

But you’d never know it from network prexy Steve McPherson, who seemed completely disinterested in the topic, making no mention of what is sure to be the most talked-about scheduling move, pitting the medical drama against “CSI.”

Like NBC, ABC categorized its new shows by genre — comedy, drama and alternative — showing clips that hung in space, not in a particular timeslot.

Still flushed from the standing ovation he received for dancing the cha-cha onstage with a scantily clad ballroom dancer, McPherson indicated the upfronts aren’t really the place for nitty-gritty network strategy.

“To me, it’s a presentation; it’s show business,” he said. “It’s not time to get clinical about the schedule.”

Why ditch the customary chess match?

From a commercial perspective, the upfront is a diminished tradition with fewer and fewer viewers and dollars represented by all the hoopla. And increasingly, the competition is much broader than the four other broadcast nets.

But from a hype perspective, the upfronts have never been bigger; seats are at a premium and buttoned-down ad execs cheer their favorite shows. Media that wouldn’t know an ad buyer from an NBC page cover it as though it were TV’s own Super Bowl.

Yet the networks have come around to the notion that the shows are the stars –franchises to be managed and delivered to multiple platforms.

“If viewers aren’t watching the shows on TV, they’re not going to download them to phones or iPods,” says CBS topper Leslie Moonves. “A bad show doesn’t look any better on a two-inch screen.”

Perhaps reacting to a Bolt Media online survey that found that four out of five 16- to 18-year-olds couldn’t name four broadcast networks, McPherson said the lack of network-wide identity didn’t matter.

“We’ve never spent a penny branding ABC,” he said.

It’s not surprising, then, that for the network that still most resembles a network, promoting the schedule still matters.

CBS topper Leslie Moonves started the Eye’s upfront day the same way he has for a decade, pulling the wraps off the net’s shopworn grid and explaining the strategy behind the Eye’s — and everyone else’s — moves.

About ABC’s moving “Grey’s Anatomy” to Thursday, Moonves said, “It’s a bold move and probably a smart one. If I were Aaron Sorkin, I wouldn’t be happy.

“I think everybody in this room will be surprised if ‘Studio 60’ doesn’t move out of Thursday night,” he added, referring to Sorkin’s new backstage drama, which, barring a move, will go up against “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI.”

CBS had some bold moves of its own, including risking its dominance on Thursday with a new show at 10 p.m., “Shark,” and using two of its top franchises, “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace” to steal Sunday nights from ABC.

Networks irrelevant? Not if you listen to Moonves, who made light of network anonymity by telling reporters a local affiliate — which he would not name — had called recently to ask him to make sure and renew “My Name Is Earl.”

More than any other network this season, CBS is selling schedule above individual shows because it has the strongest overall grid. It returns six of its new shows from last season — more than all the other networks combined.

“Buy over the whole schedule,” Moonves urged at the CBS upfront. “But don’t take it from me,” he said, cueing “The Unit” star and Allstate Insurance pitchman Dennis Haysbert to make what’s becoming an increasingly retro pitch: “You’re in good hands with CBS.”

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