Turning Down the Volume at This Year’s Upfronts

Josh Goldin, a main character in Darin Strauss’ forthcoming novel, More Than It Hurts You, works for a fictitious network called Sparkplug, selling airtime by trading on charm. The book features a set piece about the upfronts, an evocation of the hucksterism particular to the TV networks’ annual announcement of fall schedules and ritual allurement of ad buyers. ” ‘They know how to force you to watch commercials, these people,’ ” Jon Stewart says to an industry audience in Strauss’ imagining. “Next, the cast of Grey’s Anatomy will meet in a bag of Doritos.” On the next page, a late-middle-aged CFO takes the stage to roll through a bit of near-meaningless tech-jargon asyndeton that veterans of the network upfronts will find ticklingly familiar: “We know your customers. They’re the ones Googling, blogging, mo:Blogging, IM-ing, iTuning, gaming, podcasting, hypertasking, shoutcasting, and innovating. And, oh yeah, looking for great TV content. We feed that need.” Then everyone goes to the after party and tries to get close to Mr. T.

That’s a well-observed scene, one that now amounts to a jaunty elegy. The upfronts—unfolding today through Thursday in Manhattan—will not be what they used to for a number of reasons. The writers’ strike threw the traditional pilot season (already widely agreed to be an anachronism) into disarray. Networks want advertisers onboard earlier, in order to explore multiplatform opportunities (Strauss: “When multitunites knock, we answer“) and product-placement integrations (NBC exec Ben Silverman: “Tina Fey loves American Express”). Merrill Lynch predicts that the upfront market for 2008-09 could be down by as much as 14 percent from last year’s $9.3 billion, and none of the networks is in a mood to throw what is, once you account for the costs of hauling talent out from L.A. and shrimp up from the ocean, essentially a $5 million cocktail party—except for gaudy Fox, with its American Idol money and Roman Empire extravagance. And as Virginia Heffernan noted in the New York Times Magazine last week, “when media buyers can screen shows online and study a network’s demographics and ad platforms, the upfronts function chiefly as an ostentatious corporate week on the town.”

Nonetheless, I want in and will make a final plea to NBC to grant me access to its 4 p.m. event today at Rockefeller Center. Though the network already unveiled most of its new prime-time shows in April, this afternoon’s “NBC Universal Experience” trade-fair-type thingum will further touch upon developments in cable, on the Internet, and in the wilds of late night, where Jimmy Fallon will unaccountably be taking over Conan O’Brien’s show when Conan graduates to Tonight. Trade magazine TV Week says that “people at the network compare the event to a theme park attraction,” and I love a good theme park, so Ms. Marks, if you read this, please tell Wendy to put me on the list. She’s got my number.

The week promises plenty of other roller coasters—or, at the least, cup-and-saucer rides—for this reporter. ABC will hold a press conference at the not-remotely-civilized hour of 7:30 a.m. to read its schedule to journalists while allowing advertisers to sleep in for a 4 p.m. “sales discussion.” CBS will have a presentation and skip the big party. The CW will host a medium-sized party with a brief presentation as its centerpiece. Fox will announce new shows by J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon and then throw a rager in Central Park. This is not to mention the efforts by cable Goliaths (TBS, TNT) and Web Davids (Hulu) to hawk their wares. If you happen to be in Midtown right now, you might catch a special whiff of deal-making in the damp air. And when I say “special,” I mean “maybe a bit slow.” In More Than It Hurts You, one of Josh’s clients, an ad buyer representing McDonald’s, repeats an old gag over a steakhouse lunch: “TV airtime sales is a C+ business, because what student who’d made A’s or B’s would have gone into it?”