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Reporter’s Notebook: TV’s Annual Upfront Circus

More media players crash the party this time around to get a piece of the $74 bil ad action

I went to the upfronts so you didn’t have to.

I ate the BBQ sandwich at the Discovery Communications’ soiree (and fretted about having to work it off in the gym). I braved the crowds shrieking upon seeing their favorite E! reality stars on an ersatz red carpet. And I had a “Walking Dead” survivor creep the bejeezus out of me at a funhouse-type operation put into place by AMC.

If you’re not careful, that’s what the upfronts are — a series of glitzy, shrimp-cocktail showcases allowing Big TV to talk about the new programs set to swarm your screen over the next 12 months. Behind the scenes, however, billions of dollars are at stake as media companies seek ad support for those new shows. And lurking just below the surface are tacit signals of how consumer attitudes and American popular culture will evolve in the not-too-distant future.

Following is some field reporting from the couch-potato fryer. Like the presentations themselves, we start off serious and get progressively sillier:

Everyone wants a piece of the pie: Approximately $74 billion was spent on TV in 2012, according to ad-spending tracker Kantar Media, but that doesn’t mean all of it has to go to TV in perpetuity. Never before have the upfronts been clogged with so many presentations from video interlopers hoping to walk off with a sliver of the ad booty.

Cable networks have encroached on the mid-May week once reserved solely for broadcast outlets for years, but there also has been a steady parade of newer players. Cinema-ad purveyors Screenvision and NCM Media Networks are often delivering the crowds sponsors covet most via pitch-packed movie theaters. And digital rivals from YouTube to AOL are gathering to convince marketers they should sink more money into online video and mobile sites. Even print players like Conde Nast and Dow Jones have joined the fray.

While competition helps keep ad prices down, there’s little chance Madison Avenue’s uppermost ad buyers can attend this never-ending series of sizzle reels. Given so many more video series launch year round, not just in autumn, has anyone considered doing one of these things at another time of year?

The shows you won’t admit you’ll watch: If TV programming reflects the tastes of the American public, then U.S. citizens must have a stronger-than-expected attachment to the commode, as well as to C-list celebrities with unusual hobbies. Here are some candidates for TV’s Guiltiest Pleasure:

“King of Thrones” on Discovery Communications’ Destination America; summer 2013. Billing itself as “No. 1 when it comes to No. 2” this classy unscripted series purports to take viewers into what may well be the most private place in the American home. Get ready for heated floors and even a urinal made of gold.

Vanilla Ice Goes Amish” on Scripps Networks’ DIY; in production. As it turns out, this former pop-star likes to get busy with woodworking. So it makes perfect sense that he’d want to pay a visit to the Amish, who are renowned for their carpentry skills. No power tools allowed. (See also “The Daryl Hall Project,” in which the Hall & Oates singer indulges his passion for historic home restoration.)

“Pregnant and Dating” on AMC Networks’ We TV; summer 2013. The cast of this program, a group of professional women seeking romance during a time
once considered taboo, “proves that love won’t take a break for nine months,” according to promotional materials.

What I really want to do is produce: You never know who will surface as a behind-the-scenes exec as new shows head to the screen. This year’s crop includes former NBCUniversal entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin, billed as an executive producer of “Ivy League Confidential,” an unscripted series in development at NBCU’s Bravo; MSNBC breakfast-cast hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, moonlighting as executive producers of “King,” a historical drama that looks at race politics in the 1960s U.S. South for AMC; and former Viacom topper Tom Freston, executive producer of “White City,” an AMC drama series that follows western diplomats and journalists living in Afghanistan.

An impertinent question to non-pertinent issues: Which stunt will visitors to Upfront Mania 2013 remember most?

1) High-wire walker Nik Wallenda traversing a tightrope at the top of the amphitheater during Discovery Communications’ presentation.

2) A walk-through meth lab, pictured above, complete with periwinkle-colored pieces of crystal-meth-lookalike rock candy at cabler AMC’s shindig to tout “Breaking Bad.”

3) Discovery Communications allowing Oprah Winfrey to violate one of showbiz’s most iron-clad rules to never go onstage following kids and animals — letting her hold forth for OWN after Honey Boo Boo and the stars of Animal Planet had taken a bow.

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