NBC: The Fourth Place Network

Like Mother’s Day, the Kentucky Derby, and the May 1 Revolution Square parade in Havana, Upfronts Week is a traditional rite of this merry month. Setting: Manhattan. Personae: the people responsible for brightening your nights with the steady blue glow of TV entertainment and the people who employ that medium to sell you things you don’t need. Concept: selling each network’s fall schedule, with a focus on the new shows, perhaps 80 percent of which are destined for instant failure. The flops won’t go unremembered by the general public; they won’t even have been membered in the first place.

It is a bit of a seller’s market this year, at least as compared with recessionary 2009, with overall ad revenue expected to be 15 percent to 20 percent up. Things are looking relatively bright even at pathetic fourth-place NBC, the elaborate incompetence of which is a matter of record. NBC and I got along famously during my first years covering the upfronts, but in recent times, the network has declared me persona non grata, presumably on account of my incessant verbal abuse of its executives, especially Jeff Zucker, who, as is widely acknowledged, will one day be the subject of B-school presentations on how to fall up. Anyway, one NBC PR exec failed to pay me the basic courtesy of an invitation to Monday’s presentation proper—the thing with the preview videos and the bar graphs and the buffet tables and all that—so I did an end-around and e-mailed another office in Burbank and got myself a spot on the red carpet.

Alas, this carpet was not at Radio City Music Hall, the site of NBC’s upfront before things went as far south as Tierra del Fuego. No, we were across the street, up the block, on the third floor of the Hilton. Thus, we were one flight up from a similar event in a different field—the annual Uptime Institute Symposium, an IT-guy get-together addressing such topics as “Operational Sustainability Factors” and “Server Power Management.” Still, the red carpet was civilized! There was a nice early check-in, affording time to watch the cameramen talk shop and the Inside Edition hotties priss around and the geeks warm up to geeking out. I strolled through the site of the after party. Signage: “So many ways to say thank you, but free food and drinks are by far the best.”

Ah, the roasted tenderloin station! The make-your-own-sundae bar! There were two sushi bars, with each table measuring eight lengths of the Wall Street Journal, where that morning our friends reported that NBC’s wholesale renovation involves its excreting horseshit in the form of a new corporate lexicon. Its mission is to be “more colorful.” What does that mean? Nothing, probably. But NBC theorizes that there are three elements to colorfulness: “Human First,” “Fundamentally Positive,” and “Inherent Ingenuity.” Translated from Newspeak, these respectively seem to mean that NBC characters are “relatable,” that they are optimistic (Rousseauian on human nature or Panglossian about this best of all possible worlds, take your pick), and that they’re just plain special. This is all the network’s way of asking for a do-over.

It’s a line-up thick with themes of rediscovered optimism and just-when-I-thought-I-was-out trembling and married couples reinvigorating their boring sex lives. There are 12 new shows, and the network is emphasizing their big-budget production values and big-name producers rather than actors, which makes sense, since there are, by the loosest definition, fewer than five proven stars among those dozen shows. These include:

  • Mellow Blair Underwood, who plays POTUS in a political thriller titled The Event. “He’s idealistic to a certain point,” Underwood said of his character. There’s your fundamental positivity, I suppose. As for inherent ingenuity, The Event may well combine the clarity of Lost with the sound internal logic of 24.
  • Scintillating Jimmy Smits, who plays a Supreme Court justice in Outlaw. His character is a strict interpretationist who, fed up with the establishment blah blah blah, quits the judiciary to stand up for the common-man blah blah blah. Really, I’d much rather see Scalia do improv.
  • Charismatic Everyman Paul Reiser, who play Paul Reiser in a Paul Reiser project presently titled The Paul Reiser Show, which looks to be a sweet-natured Curb Your Enthusiasm. No one worked the carpet better than Paul Reiser. It helps that he’s kinda handsy. At one moment, he gave a reporter an intimate tap on the arm. At another moment—and then another yet after that—he fondly caressed Smits about the back and shoulders.

Throughout this promotional opportunity, the PR girls—those hailing from the NBC-Universal family and also the actors’ personal publicists—performed with grace and power. They were masters of managing traffic and keeping things moving, and they watched over their charges like mama lions in the shade, restful but alert. They put Tina Fey in a kind of EZ-Pass lane so that she could skip chatting with print and Internet journalists and go straight to taping an in-house ad on a riser over my shoulder, flashbulb frenzy in the background: “The people, the color, the free shrimp—it must be the NBC Prime Time Presentation!” Her cocktail of show-person’s enthusiasm and cynic’s distaste was delicious.

“Do you want to talk to Jessica Parker Kennedy from Undercovers?” said another publicist, drumming up business for an ingénue. I hadn’t known that I wanted to talk to Miss Kennedy until I glimpsed her honeyed smile and delicate dusting of body glitter. I decided that I needed to see what she had to say for herself. As a secondary star of Undercovers, Kennedy had to say a lot of “J.J. this” and “J.J. that,” the show being a spy thriller produced by J.J. Abrams, who remains the man of the moment despite the collective hundreds of thousands of hours that Americans have wasted on Lost. Kennedy promised us that her character is very relatable.

J.J. himself asserted his status by just hanging out on the red carpet, doling out back slaps and bear hugs. The only other person who tried anything of the sort was Olivia Munn, the G4 personality, Gen-Y pin-up, and now a co-star of a self-explanatory sitcom ironically titled Perfect Couples. Lingering at length, Olivia pouted in the direction of anything with a lens and perkily asked likely fanboys if they had any further questions, faux-casually volunteering that the pilot featured her “first on-camera make-out.” Meanwhile, the PR chicks, entrusted to carry the handbags of the actresses on the carpet, hung out in groups of threes and fours, discreetly seeing how they looked with Prada and Coach and Miu Miu swinging from their yoga-toned arms.

Hey, here was Celebrity Apprentice star Donald Trump, a windbag for whom I have a soft spot. He might be coarse, he might be a braggart, he might be a clown—he might be all these things and in fact is, but he keeps it real. What’s the best part of the upfronts, Donald? “Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. “I’m a real-estate guy. I really like to come here and see the actors. … But of course, I have the highest ratings of them all.”

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