As a rule, the better gossip is out with the smokers. Monday evening in Rockefeller Plaza, outside the cocktail party that followed NBC’s “Primetime Preview Presentation,” I told a veteran TV reporter that this was my first time at the upfronts and asked what to expect. “It’s a zoo,” he said. “Think of it as Jurassic Park.” I am not exactly sure whether he was likening the spectacle to an amusement ride or making hints about dinosaurs, but please hold the second idea in mind.
“Upfront Week” is a space in mid-May when Midtown Manhattan grows heated with network broadcasters seducing advertisers. Spin and stars and open bars—see how wonderful this fall’s shows are! They’re called the upfronts because that’s how the deal’s done: Buy ad space now, or risk not being able to buy it later. There’s about $9 billion in play. NBC goes first, which is just the way it is, and in the hour before the network’s 3 p.m. sales pitch yesterday, a file of ad buyers and media consultants and such inched down a side street and into Radio City Music Hall. Ostentatiously, the women talked of the window display in a new Anthropologie store on 50th, and how it wasn’t there last year, and the temptations it posed. Discreetly, they analyzed Suzanne Vranica’s article in the morning’s Wall Street Journal: Johnson & Johnson, which spent almost half a billion dollars on TV ads last year, would maybe sit out these upfronts. As might Coca-Cola. The going notion is that autumn is a long time from now and you’ve gotta figure out your ad plan for the Internet and cell phones and whatever else they come up with, and who knows what that’s all about?
What are the upfronts like? The earnest sales pitches are greased with a particular sense of humor, something a little frat-boyish and a lot inside baseball. Jokes about demographics and network executives go over big. For instance, when the stars of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—a backstage thing about a late-night sketch comedy show and surely the most hyped program of the coming season—hauled their charisma forth, the actor Steven Weber, late of Wings, said, “I’m Steven Weber. Affluent women like me.”
For instance, the crowd was most energized when Al Michaels, John Madden, and the other stars of NBC’s new Sunday-night football programming—there is no more Monday Night Football on ABC; Sunday is the new Monday—hurled pigskin at them.
For instance, when the stars of My Name Is Earl and The Office came up on the pretense of discussing what it meant to them to be on NBC, Earl’s Nadine Velazquez likened her job to that of a hooker: You get to do what you love, you get to meet celebrities, and sometimes Jeff Zucker—former producing prodigy and current CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group—comes into your dressing room and beats you with a coat hanger.
Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment, paced the stage, did some elegant self-flagellations regarding his network’s fourth-place ratings, made some promises about “quality” programming, and ceded the stage to the talent. The talent introduced promo clips from their new shows—footage from pilot episodes mostly, three minutes long or so—that were projected on a wide screen. It’s an effective presentation. I’m psyched to watch even the shows I suspect are hideous, except maybe Raines:
Kidnappedhas nothing to do with Robert Louis Stevenson. Timothy Hutton and Dana Delany are Manhattanites. Baddies with skillz worthy of a Bond villain snatch one of their two boys. As a detective or dispenser of vigilante justice or something, Six Feet Under’s Jeremy Sisto “can go places the FBI can’t go.” Take that as you will.
Friday Night Lights is based on Peter Berg’s adaptation of Buzz Bissinger’s book about high-school football in Texas. I was set to reduce it to a handy high-concept formula—Dawson’s Creek meets Any Given Sunday—when I heard Reilly say, “Somebody described this pilot as The O.C. with guts and authenticity.” Problem: Would not a gutsy and authentic show about high-school life in semirural America necessarily involve a couple of abortions and a meth lab?
30 Rock is the NBC’s other backstage thing about a comedy show. (As star and co-creator Tina Fey said, “Every year an idea comes along that is so unique that NBC only has two of them.”) She seems winningly Julia Louis-Dreyfus-ish as the head writer on a sitcom. Alec Baldwin seems to deploy his megalomania to good effect as a network bigwig. And Saturday Night Live’s Tracy Morgan, playing a volatile actor, seems to be off the chain.
The Black Donnellys is the work of Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, who also made the Oscar-winning Crash together. Try not to hold that against them. It’s about four handsome young Irish thugs in contemporary New York City. Someone slathered a Rolling Stones song on the promo in hopes of inducing a Mean Streets feeling that did not quite take. And the characters’ accents have apparently been imported from an Italian neighborhood in Providence, R.I.
Raines stars Jeff Goldblum as a detective who hallucinates solutions or something. Watch a few minutes of it to see if you agree that Goldblum, these days, would be a natural for the lead role in a musical comedy titled Lockbox! The Al Gore Story.
Twenty Good Years features Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow as old chums—friends, confidants, squash partners—embarking together on a hilarious midlife crisis. What would you bet that Kelsey Grammer turned down this show? * And why does it seem as if it should be on CBS?
Heroes, with its moody assemblage of Benetton models discovering their new superpowers, was unquestionably born as a handy high-concept formula, X-Men meets Lost. On the one hand, its young cast was not at all convincing in describing its charms. On the other, one of its central themes is blowing up New York, which is timeless, the action equivalent of a simple strand of pearls.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip stars Steven Weber, D.L. Hughley, Amanda Peet, Bradley Whitford, Timothy Busfield, Matthew Perry, Sarah Paulson, and The Daily Show’s Nate Corddry, who we are now supposed to call Nathan. It’s got pill-popping TV producers, quivering boy-naifs, and spiky dames. An Aaron Sorkin creation, it seems to share the verbal energy of Sorkin’s Sports Night and his early West Wing episodes. What’s not to love? For a critic, nothing yet. For the guy in front of me in line for the after-party? “I don’t know if they wanted it to be a comedy or a drama or what?”
I don’t have the energy to detail Reilly’s brief stroll through NBC’s coming game shows and reality series, a genre he wonderfully called “the unscripted arena.” What sapped me of it was Jeff Zucker’s interminable meandering through “the exploding digital world.” The network is compelled to convince advertisers that it has a clue regarding how we’ll be watching television on our computers and iPods and phones or whatever a year from now. In practice, this meant Zucker’s flinging some jargon at the problem and peddling online content ranging from “Webisodes” of The Office to Tonight Show skits that weren’t good enough to make it on air to a Heroes “animated digital comic book.” “How wack was that animation?” asked one of the smokers, an ad guy. “Oh, well. Free liquor.”