Ed Martin’s Annual Upfront Reviews and Ratings

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What follows is my annual critique of all the Upfront Week action. Well, most of it anyway. It has become so overcrowded with events there is no way that any one person could attend them all, let alone process them in a clear and objective manner. Accordingly, please look for upcoming reports by Simon Applebaumon the events not covered below, including the many presentations by Spanish-language networks.

Before jumping in I would like as always to acknowledge the tremendous amount of work by the networks’ sales, marketing, promotion and publicity departments in producing all of these presentations. Even the smallest upfront event is a massive undertaking.

Each network has been assigned a Jack rating that represents an overall assessment of its presentation, including clarity of its sales strategy and program positioning, degree of engagement, star power and entertainment value.

The ratings are as follows:

5 Jacks – Excellent
4 Jacks – Very Good
3 Jacks – Good
2 Jacks – Fair
1 Jack – Poor
0 Jacks – Worse than bad

CBS – 5 Jacks

As usual, CBS’ upfront presentation didn’t even belong in the same space as those of the other guys. If it were a movie I would call it a “titanic achievement.” If it were a television series I would call it a “breakout hit.” If it were a theatrical production I would call it “the hottest ticket in town.” It’s not that NBC, Fox and ABC failed to be informative or to varying degrees engaging. They all did a fine job of positioning themselves and articulating their cross-media strategies for the year ahead. But as compared to CBS (and The CW, as noted below) they didn’t do quite as well at generating instant interest in their new shows. Of course, that could say something about the shows themselves and/or their clip reels. Or it could be a comment on how those networks incorporated their talent into their presentations.

The presentation opened with a video of CBS Television president, network sales Jo Ann Ross performing a high-wire act as Pink. (Actually, it was Ross’ head superimposed on Pink’s body.) It set the upbeat tone for the show, but the video that followed featuring stars of “The Good Wife” really kicked the afternoon into high gear – and it lead to a grand live performance by Alan Cumming. From the moment he took the stage, first as his buttoned-up “Good Wife” character Eli Gold, and then (after a quick strip) as the sexually super-charged emcee he plays in the current Broadway revival of “Cabaret,” and belted out his signature song “Willkommen” (with upfront and CBS-specific lyrics) the network owned the room. It topped even last year’s performance by Neil Patrick Harris and his co-stars from “How I Met Your Mother.”

It was impossible to not give in, sitting and staring at the IMAX-size screen on the stage, absorbing everything CBS had to show. Actually, the videos and graphics CBS projected filled the entire wall; it was as if no mere screen could hold them. The great moments just kept coming: A fond-farewell – including a standing ovation – for David Letterman (pictured above with CBS Corporation president and chief executive officer Leslie Moonves), who made his second consecutive appearance at a CBS upfront; a brief but star-filled sports presentation, and the best celebrity introductions of the week. As stars from old and new CBS shows were introduced from the stage by CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler (once again the most engaging executive at any upfront event) they actually stood up, waved, smiled and turned completely around so as to briefly face everyone in the cavernous room, filling it with an energy that the other events largely lacked.

The CW – 4 Jacks

I attended six upfront events last week and watched one (ABC) from the comfort of my home – and out of the dozens of new shows previewed by all of them I don’t think I saw another get as grand an introduction as “The Flash.” In a smart move by the network, a finely tailored Stephen Amell took the stage at the very beginning of the presentation, introduced an extended sizzle reel for “The Flash” and then introduced the cast. Amell, the star of “Arrow” -- the show from which “Flash” has been spun off -- is certainly one of the network’s brightest stars and unarguably its most dapper.

This introduction came immediately after a spectacular mini-concert by Neon Trees (pictured below) that opened the presentation, leaving the audience wildly pumped up and ready to receive whatever The CW had to offer. Even if the clips from “The Flash” had been bland I think the crowd would have embraced the show, given the infusion of fresh energy in the room provided by one of the hottest bands in the land.

The rest of The CW’s presentation powered along, with appearances by the cast of “Jane the Virgin” (another promising fall freshman) and the stars of the long-running “Supernatural,” Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki. There was also a preview of the summer series “Backpackers” (a CW TV adaptation of a popular program from its online Seed initiative). At the end, at least two dozen of The CW’s stars joined network president Mark Pedowitz on stage.

Spectacular screens and vivid graphics on stage, a memorable music performance, smart and effective previews of new series, unprecedented support (during a broadcast upfront) for a specific online program, a cavalcade of popular stars – even live music from lesser-known performers on stage as the audience filtered in and milled about before the show began. It was just about perfect. So why not give The CW a robust 5 Jacks? Because it continued its unfortunate tradition of not having a luncheon of some kind after its show, allowing guests some face time with talent and executives. The network always goes to the trouble of bringing in a busload of its very popular young stars for its upfront event – why not do more with them?

NBC Universal Cable Networks – 4 Jacks

Where was “Sharknado 2?” That was my only complaint about the massive presentation by NBC Universal Cable that breezed through new programs from seven of the company’s networks and the sales strategy that will tie them all together. (NBCUniversal president of advertising sales Linda Yaccarino, who opened Upfront Week at the NBC presentation Monday morning and wrapped it all up on Thursday afternoon, gave CBS’ Nina Tassler a run for her money as the most engaging executive on any stage during those four days.)

There were 120 celebrities, entertainment personalities and Bravolebrities on stage, in the audience and at the blow-out party that followed, all on hand to promote shows from USA, Syfy, Bravo, Oxygen, E!, Sprout and Esquire (sadly, no Chiller). Even “Sharknado” star Ian Ziering was in the house. The room at the Javits Center featured a mammoth wall to wall screen that allowed for stunning video and graphics that contributed greatly to the effectiveness of the presentation. (NBC on Monday could have benefitted from utilizing the same technology.) All in all it was an informative multi-network presentation – the first of its magnitude during an Upfront Week – and a grand finale to a wild few days.

Fox – 3 ½ Jacks for presentation only, 4 Jacks overall

Fox’s presentation was the breeziest of the Big Four. I’ve heard some grumbling about its impact, or lack thereof, but I thought it played just fine. It would probably have played better in another venue; as always, it was difficult to clearly hear everything that was being said on the stage of the Beacon Theater way down below from the balcony way up above, where Fox confines the press. It was a challenge to clearly hear the clips, as well.

Fox started things off with a great performance by Pitbull (on hand to promote his New Year’s Eve special) and a very funny comic routine by “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” star Andy Samberg. But I missed the parade of Fox stars that used to open the show. I appreciate the network’s efforts to keep things moving at a brisk clip, but the star sighting was never a drag. Why not show off your talent?

Even if the presentation only rated 3 ½ Jacks, I have bumped Fox up to a solid 4 because it still throws the best Upfront Week party and it is way out ahead of everyone else with its adjacent FanFront activities. I wasn’t there to see the full FanFront in action, but I followed it on Twitter while at lunch. (Andy Samberg, below right, was among the stars who met the fans.)

Turner Networks – 3 ½ Jacks

I arrived a bit late to this one, having been at CBS’ annual Upfront Week press breakfast that morning. So I’ll leave it to Simon Applebaum to deeply dive into the details in his upcoming review. From way back in the cheap seats where much of the press ended up in The Theater at Madison Square Garden, a new upfront venue for Turner, it was difficult to get a feel for the room – or to keep clear all those clips from all those new shows. My primary complaint was with Conan O’Brien, one of many hosts of late-night shows who is beginning to wear out his welcome during his network’s upfront event. His “this upfront thing sucks” routine is getting old, and I could have done without him calling TNT, TBS and TCM president Michael Wright an “asshole” at the end. (At least that’s what it sounded like way in the back.) So why am I giving Turner Networks a generous 3 ½ Jacks? Because they once again put together a fantastic lunch after the event for talent, executives and press only (this time at the fabulous Ai Fiori NYC in the Langham Place hotel). Ask any reporter or critic who attends and he or she will tell you; it is always a rousing success and it is always one of the highlights of Upfront Week.

ABC – 3 Jacks

I once again opted to watch ABC’s presentation online in the comfort of my own home, so I didn’t see the digital photo booths the network had set up in the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall to engage guests beforehand. Jack Myers reports that the five booths, each featuring talent from one of ABC’s top programs, proved quite popular, adding that the photo opps could have been better promoted in advance of the event. (The photo below, taken by Jack Myers, is of "Once Upon a Time" star Lana Parilla.)

As usual with ABC I didn’t feel like I was missing much by not being there. There is a sameness to its event year after year that’s a letdown to those of us who remember when Disney knew how to put on a distinctive show. Remember when ABC’s was the best event of Upfront Week?

On the plus side, ABC presented the most interesting lineup of new shows overall that we saw all week, and ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee didn’t seem to be overselling them with quite as much unbridled brio as last year. On the down side, there was once again no party, and many journalists had trouble getting tickets (something that doesn’t seem to be a problem with any other network’s Upfront Week events). And why didn’t ABC find a few minutes for a timely farewell tribute to the legendary Barbara Walters, who retired on Friday after a career spanning seven decades, five of them at ABC? No clips. No remarks from Anne Sweeney or Bob Iger, who were both in the room? I recall there was a tribute of some kind to Walters at last year’s event, but still – someone could have handed her a bouquet of roses or something.

NBC – 3 Jacks

The Javits Center proved to be quite a letdown after last year’s presentation at Radio City Music Hall. There was simply nothing special about the venue chosen to stage NBC’s most important event of the year. Even “Late Night” host Seth Meyers in his opening remarks couldn’t help but state the obvious:

”You’ve heard, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ The Javits Center is where you end up if you don’t practice!”

“What it lacks in charm it more than makes up for in space. It’s so big it can fit everyone who watched [last season’s mega-bomb] ‘Ironside.’”

He also referred to the neighborhood surrounding the Javits as “New York’s historic stabbing district” and reminded us all that the subway doesn’t even stop there.

Personally, I thought the ballroom in the midtown Hilton Hotel a couple years back was a better choice. At least it was convenient.

The news and information value of the event was satisfactory, even if NBC had released almost everything via e-mail and social media the day before. And the network did a fine job of explaining its strategy and heralding its considerable success. But the entire morning dragged, even with Meyers and Jimmy Fallon on hand to interject some funny. (For what it’s worth, I thought Seth was much more amusing than Jimmy.) Once again the network’s stars were confined to their seats, timidly smiling at a mobile camera when introduced from the stage. (Over at CBS the stars stood and waved, as noted above.) And there was once again no luncheon or opportunity for guests to interact after the show.

On the upside, the video with James Spader in character as Red Reddington from “The Blacklist” identifying several new dangerous criminal types – all of them media executives – may have been the best video ever seen at an Upfront Week presentation. What a shame Spader wasn’t on hand to take the stage and offer additional commentary.

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