When it comes to clarifying a network’s brand message, showcasing its talent and generating excitement among advertisers and the press for its upcoming fall and midseason schedules there is nothing quite like the annual upfront week in New York City.
As overloaded as it is, especially with so many cable networks squeezing into what had once exclusively been a broadcast event, the four-day experience takes on its own unique momentum, and if one paces oneself and moves through it (as I have done for over twenty years) the rewards far outweigh the drawbacks.
Overall, this year’s upfront extravaganza, which took place last week, was a good one for broadcast and cable networks alike. As is always the case, some of their events were more impactful than others, but they all successfully introduced at least a few new series that immediately began to build buzz online, in print and in advertising circles.
What follows is a hindsight critique of all the upfront action, with the networks listed in order of effectiveness, and featuring brief mentions of what appear to be each of their most promising new series. Before jumping in I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous amount of work that goes into producing all of these presentations. Even the smallest upfront event is a huge undertaking.
Venue: Carnegie Hall
Anyone who might wonder why CBS usually earns top honors for the week (as it once again did this year) need only have walked through Carnegie Hall before its presentation even began to understand why it remains the network to beat for upfront engagement.
For the better part of a half-hour before the show started a vivid display of glamorous and exciting images and videos featuring all of CBS’ stars filled a massive screen above the stage. It was so well-conceived and executed that it was mesmerizing to watch.
Talk about understanding what show business and entertainment are all about! An opening video featuring Tim Tebow, David Letterman and Regis Philbin, in which 2 Broke Girls stars Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, in character as waitresses Max and Caroline, struggled to make their way to Carnegie Hall and distribute their cupcakes, ended with Dennings and Behrs dashing down one aisle handing out their sweet treats.
There was also a performance by rapper and NCIS: Los Angeles star LL Cool J (left) and classical opera singer Danielle Denise (far left), an appearance by current Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning (CBS has the big game next season) and a fine party afterwards. When it comes to generating upfront excitement, nobody does it better than CBS.
Most promising new series at first glance: Vegas, a period crime drama set in the title city circa 1960, starring Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis, and Elementary, a contemporary spin on the legendary Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.
Venue: The Beacon Theater
Fox’s presentation was well done, as always, but for the first time in longer than I can remember I felt that the network didn’t effectively maximize its talent. There were no performances by anyone from Glee, American Idol, The X Factor or So You Think You Can Dance. (Heck, we didn’t even get a number by The Warblers or Vocal Adrenaline!) A closing song from Mary J. Blige seemed awkward and out of place, even though she had been a mentor this season on Idol.
But Fox wisely brought in Ryan Seacrest (left) to host, and the show opened in grand fashion with stars from every Fox show taking the stage. The disarming charms of New Girl star Zooey Deschanel were nicely showcased when she engaged in some silly banter with new Fox star Mindy Kaling.
The announcement that Britney Spears and Demi Lovato were joining The X Factor had everyone talking (even if some of that talk was less than kind).
Everything moved along crisply and efficiently, and afterwards Fox kept its reputation intact by throwing the biggest and best party of the week at Central Park’s Wollman Rink. (CBS and Fox both get special credit for throwing post-presentation parties and giving everyone a chance to mingle with talent and executives alike, especially because ABC, NBC and The CW chose not to do so.)
Most promising new series at first glance: The fall comedy Ben and Kate, about odd couple-like siblings, and The Following, a midseason thriller about the hunt for a serial killer who is creating a cult of murderers, starring Kevin Bacon.
Venue: New York City Center
In some respects, The CW’s annual upfront presentation is relatively modest compared to the other broadcasters, perhaps because it only programs 10 hours of primetime a week. But it always puts on a great show nevertheless.
The theater was filled with stunning vertical, horizontal and curved video screens that were dazzling to watch as they flashed images of current and future CW talent across the front of the New York City Center, and the audience was charged up at the start thanks to a high-powered performance by rapper Flo’ Rida (left).
The CW brought out almost all of its stars at the end of the show; unfortunately, there was no opportunity for guests to talk with any of them. (It’s too bad they didn’t give the super-popular casts of The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural a few moments of their own on stage earlier in the presentation.)
Most promising new series at first glance: The fall superhero adventure Arrow, a dark take on the D.C. Comics’ character Green Arrow, and the Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, set for midseason.
Venue: The Hammerstein Ballroom
Despite its lackluster locale, this joint presentation by TNT and TBS was a breezy and highly impactful affair featuring Conan O’Brien and the stars of Dallas, The Closer spin-off Major Crimes, Southland, Rizzoli & Isles, Falling Skies, Cougar Town and others.
Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin was once again the biggest star of all, opening the presentation by wheeling out an antique overhead projector (on an especially squeaky cart) to ensure that the show would go on even if another power surge lead to multiple equipment failures, as legendarily happened last year. (You had to be there.)
Turner gets extra credit for remembering that journalists play a key role in getting early word out about their upcoming series and schedules, once again hosting a grand post-presentation lunch for press and talent only at Del Posto.
Most promising new series at first glance: The return of Dallas and the David E. Kelley medical drama Monday Mornings (both on TNT) and the goofy reality series King of the Nerds (TBS).
Venue: Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center
After a spectacular upfront presentation and party last year that came earlier in the season, USA in a risky move decided to enter the already crowded big week itself, taking the Thursday afternoon slot.
The gamble paid off. No matter how spent the advertisers and journalists in the audience might have been at that point, the overall response to the network’s entertaining presentation and pleasant party was extremely favorable.
USA stuck with what worked so well last year, having the stars of its many series guide the audience through the presentation without a single executive stepping foot on the stage.
Bruce Campbell (left, wearing the white jacket, along with (l-r) Michael Ealy, Warren Cole and Coby Bell) of Burn Notice appeared at the end and amped the audience when he cheered, “I’m the last presenter at the last upfront!” Then he offered to buy everyone in the auditorium a cocktail and send the bill to NBCU Cable Entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer.
Erykah Badu closed the show with a performance that had many USA stars on their feet. Christopher Gorham, Mark Feuerstein, Callie Thorne, Sarah Shahi, Piper Perabo and the peerless Mr. Campbell can really bust a move.
Most promising new series at first glance: The sophisticated summer drama Political Animals, starring Sigourney Weaver, and the upcoming music-driven reality show The Choir, an adaptation of the excellent BBC series of the same title.
Venue: Radio City Music Hall
There was much to get excited about during the presentation itself, including a grand performance by Smash stars Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty of their series’ signature song "Let Me Be Your Star," a hugely entertaining sizzle reel at the start with Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon (who learned that every show on NBC was going to be transformed into a musical) and a moving rendition of I Believe I Can Fly by newly minted Voice champion Jermaine Paul.
But something about this event overall felt a bit flat. It might have been the delivery by NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt and NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, who seemed somewhat dwarfed by the cavernous Radio City Music Hall stage. Or maybe it was their failure to introduce any of the dozens of stars seated in the audience after the clips from their shows. Instead, they were shown sitting in their seats, some of them in dark shadows. They weren’t even asked to stand and wave. (CBS and Turner were infinitely better in handling their star introductions.)
And where the heck was brand new America’s Got Talent judge Howard Stern — on the radio, maybe? Had he been there I’m certain people would still be talking about whatever he had to say. Oh well, at least we had Crystal the monkey, star of the upcoming sitcom Animal Practice and the fall season’s most exciting new talent.
Most promising new series at first glance: Revolution, an adventure-drama by J.J. Abrams about the aftermath of a permanent and weird world-wide power failure (even batteries no longer work) and The New Normal, a comedy from Ryan Murphy about a gay couple and the surrogate carrying their child.
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center
I watched this one online, but even in a little box on my computer screen it seemed to be an improvement over ABC’s unremarkable upfront presentations of recent years. It was all very formal and complete, from the opening remarks by Disney/ABC Television Group president and Disney Media Networks co-chair Anne Sweeney to ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee’s cheerful introductions of the network’s new shows.
Cast members from Revenge, Once Upon a Time and Modern Family appeared on stage, and as is tradition Jimmy Kimmel was brought in to entertain in comically rude fashion.
“I’m sick of it,” he said of the upfront. “I’m sick of new shows. I’m sick of the old shows. I’m sick of research. I’m sick of demographics. I’m sick of Anne. I’m sick of Paul and I’m getting sick of you [the audience]. I hate to say it but how many times do I have to tell you this is bullshit? It’s an upfront so I’ll be up front. We don’t know what we’re doing!”
Kimmel said he couldn’t believe he had been doing this for ten years. Me neither. To be honest, I think it’s time for ABC to find someone or something new to liven up its annual event.
Most promising new series at first glance: The serial drama Nashville, starring the luminous Connie Britton, and the thriller 666 Park Avenue, about a haunted high-end apartment building in Manhattan, starring Vanessa Williams and Terry O’Quinn.
For more on the 2012 fall landscape, check out TVWW's reports — and watch trailers — on the new fall shows for ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW.