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Days of lavish TV upfronts are gone

Networks scaling back due to strike

It’s two weeks before the broadcast network upfronts, and the town isn’t ready.

Conference rooms normally booked solid with marathon pilot screenings are empty. Many pilots are still in the casting phase, or are still recruiting directors and other key production elements. At one network, execs who normally put together their upfront speech months in advance just began working on it.

What’s more, most of the five major broadcast networks — still reeling from the loss of revenue due to the strike — are dramatically scaling back the number of L.A. staffers they plan to send to Gotham next month. Some talent agencies have also cut back their upfront contingents, telling some younger agents they’ll have to stay home this year.

“It’s going to be slim pickings this year,” one TV biz insider said. “Everything is being cut back.”

Normally, a year’s worth of pitches, scripts, development, pilots, casting and production boils down to that one week in May. Virtually the entire biz relocates to Gotham as the networks unveil their fall wares to advertisers. Agencies throw lavish parties to toast clients, nets throw bigger fetes to woo advertisers — then everyone gets on a plane back to Los Angeles.

That won’t be the case this year.

At ABC, one person familiar with the net’s plans said perhaps just a half-dozen senior execs will schlep to New York this year — dramatically fewer than in past years. As of now, net has also opted against flying out any talent from its shows (save for latenight host Jimmy Kimmel).

CBS is also cutting back on its upfront crew, slashing its Gotham contingent by more than 50%, according to a person familiar with the net’s thinking. Only staffers directly involved in putting together the Eye’s upfront presentation will get a golden ticket to Gotham this year.

Not surprisingly, NBC is also downsizing its upfront team — in part because the net has already presented its fall (and winter, and spring) schedule. And instead of an upfront, Peacock is planning the “NBC Universal Experience,” a circus-like event at 30 Rock in which Madison Avenue men and women, along with the press, will get a taste of all things Peacock.

Also scaling back is the CW, which earlier this year opted to scrap a straight-ahead presentation in favor of a cocktail party with a mini-presentation. As a result, network insiders confirm that the net will be cutting back its upfront contingent.

While strike-related budget pressures are behind many of the cuts, other observers believe this year’s event just seems less relevant. “It just seems like a different kind of year. It seems like everything is just smaller,” one agency insider said.

One network wag lamented that more staffers wouldn’t be headed to Gotham this May.

“It’s a shame, because the end of year thing is important for people as a release, to mark the end of development season,” insider said. “But this year, there really wasn’t a normal development season, so it wouldn’t really be the end of anything.”

Because so many pilots are still in flux, much of the talk around town about what has a shot to get on the air next season has relied on script quality, casting coups and A-list auspices.

There are the no-brainers: Joss Whedon’s Fox drama “Dollhouse,” starring Eliza Dushku, is a lock (and already has an episodic order). Ditto Fox’s J.J. Abrams entry “Fringe,” which has a series commitment, and its Bernie Mac-Bruce Helford comedy. Net execs are also said to be fond of the script for comedy “Boldy Going Nowhere,” from the team behind FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” but it won’t be shot until long after the upfront.

Hot projects at CBS are said to include dramas “The Mentalist,” and the untitled Geena Davis vehicle and Jerry Bruckheimer’s “11th Hour,” which is already hiring staff writers.

Despite some hiccups, ABC has long been high on David E. Kelley’s drama “Life on Mars,” making it a contender for a 2008-09 slot.

CW, meanwhile, is expected to pick up its “Beverly Hills, 90210” spinoff, even though nothing has been shot yet. The saucy “How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls,” which, like “Gossip Girl,” is based on a novel, is also considered likely.

With far fewer new shows available to tout, the upfront presentations themselves — once three-hour or more affairs — have been slashed down, as the nets forgo the pomp and circumstance.

Nets may announce fall lineups but forgo midseason announcements. With fewer cutdowns to show than usual, the network presentations are expected to be short and sweet this year. What’s more, most nets have canceled their post-presentation parties (with the exception of Fox).

Alphabet plans on offering advertisers a “no B.S.” presentation, laying out its strategy sans stunts and gimmicks. Net has just a handful of scripted pilots that will be done prior to its upfront, which means there won’t be as many lengthy clip presentations as in years past.

ABC insiders are hoping to avoid scheduling or announcing new shows that haven’t already shot a pilot (unlike NBC, which announced series orders for several projects that have yet to lense a single scene). Net has a pilot for “Life on Mars” in the can, and should have two comedies and several alternative projects ready for screening by upfront week.

Unlike the other nets, Alphabet also has a strong roster of returning sophomore shows it can point to, including “Private Practice,” “Pushing Daisies” and “Dirty Sexy Money.”

Over at CBS, where development execs have been working feverishly to ensure a healthy number of pilots are ready to be screened — up to nine dramas and five laffers — it’s believed the net will manage to show off clips from a number of new projects.

“We will be showing brand-new shows at our upfront,” CBS Corp. supremo Leslie Moonves told analysts Tuesday during a conference call to discuss earnings. “Many of our shows were filmed as presentations rather than full pilots, representing significant savings, while still providing the creative content on the screen to make an informed decision regarding the best new series.”

Moonves was upbeat about the Eye’s strike-shortened slate, even suggesting that it might have helped with the quality of this year’s pilots.

“I’ve only had the opportunity to see two of our pilots so far, one of which I absolutely adore,” he said. “I don’t want to oversell, but I am very excited about one. It is ironic, but there are some who think — and I may be one of them — that the forced, compressed nature of it may have forced better work or more intense work on the part of people. Obviously, casting became a bit more difficult because everybody was running in a very limited period of time.”

When the strike ended in mid-February, the networks opted to push forward at their own pace. Some nets, like ABC and Fox, aren’t following arbitrary deadlines and will continue developing pilots into the summer. CBS, meanwhile, decided to pick up more short-form presentations and make their programming choices from there. One network, NBC, decided to go for broke and announce its fall sked a month early. (The Peacock is planning an event promoting the entire NBC U universe, in lieu of a network presentation.)

In some ways, webheads sound liberated by the decision to play fast and loose with the upfronts. There’s much more calm in the air than what usually transpires in the days leading up to the nets’ presentations to advertisers.

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