Upfront Anthropology

Tying up the week with a glossy ribbon, the CW delivered its upfront presentation at the theater at Madison Square Garden on Thursday morning. The audience was comprehensively hung-over, even the teetotalers among its membership, everyone having spent the three previous days getting high on whiffs of deal-making, tastes of the future, and healthy gulps of secondhand glamour. Also, the bartenders at the CBS’s Wednesday-night party were pouring generously, as if their assignment had been to keep people socializing vigorously, to loosen lips so that the fall shows could “get socialized” thoroughly, to use a phrase an ad consultant once charmingly slurred to me.

This process—talking about the previews—is the most anthropologically interesting aspect of this whole festival. Talking with their mouths full of sliders, the marketing people chat about what looks good and what looks bad and what looks unlookable-at, acting as their own first focus group, consciously and otherwise. All week long, executives making their pitches would invoke “the water-cooler effect” to explain why the Internet was not TV’s foe but its friend: A person who spends time on Facebook typing encomiums to NCIS: LA is a person deeply engaged with the show, and if you act now, dear advertiser, you can get this person emotionally engaged with the brand-image of your particular line of low-fat yogurt. What upfronts week offers is the sashimi-bar effect: An ad buyer’s preliminary emotional engagement with Hawaii Five-0 might be guided by the emerging consensus that it looks awesome, or her commitment to buying time on The Good Wife might be strengthened by the fact that she got a cell-phone picture taken with Julianna Margulies, who’s really down-to-earth. When I started attending the network upfronts in 2006, it was fashionable to predict that this superficially wasteful ritual was on its last legs, but that was just chatter. I don’t mean to be judgmental when I say that waste is what watching TV is all about.

Anyway, the CW, showcasing one of the weapons aimed at its target audience, launched its presentation with a two-song set by the pop object Katy Perry. In the middle of the hatefully hummable “Hot N Cold,” Perry took a moment to rouse the crowd: “Is it too early for you to stand on your feet and have some fucking fun?” From my point of view, it wasn’t remotely early enough, but the singer taunted much of the audience into compliance. Then she went into the brilliantly generic “California Gurls,” a frictionless piece of synth-pop she referred to as the anthem of the CW’s summer marketing campaign. Then network’s head of sales breathed a tolerable slogan: The CW is offering “TV for Generation D,” D meaning digital, generation really meaning women between the ages of 18 to 34. Then head honcho Dawn Ostroff debuted the only two new dramas she needs to debut this fall, the network having gotten its legs.

—Nikita. Another interpretation of Luc Besson’s 1990 assassin-waif classic. This being 2010, our new Nikita is “empowered,” as Ostroff said no fewer than six times at the post-show press conference. The star is my fourth most-favorite Maggie in the film business, Maggie Q (who follows Gyllenhaal, Cheung, and Smith).

—Hellcats. Set at a fictional university in Memphis, this show is here to tell you that cheerleading is a sport. Catfighting, too. There’s a new set of pompoms on the sidelines, wielded by a surly little number who does the moves they don’t teach in class, unless that class is Exotic Dance 301.

—The CW also has two reality shows in the hopper. One is Plain Jane, which looks to be a sweet-funny-romantic makeover show. The other a weight-loss program. We saw no footage, just a graphic featuring two flabby torsos and one perfect title—Shedding for the Wedding. A delighted groan rose through the room, and our hangovers lifted a bit, soothed by the fizz of funny rude commerce.

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