As Upfront week began I couldn't help but wonder if the annual extravaganza of presentations and parties has any real value anymore. Given that everyone attending them already knows almost everything that will be announced, why would the networks want to continue spending vast fortunes to produce them? Some observers think the week's events should be discontinued, and I have agreed with them of late. But as I moved through the week it once again became clear that when it comes to promoting a network's accomplishments and generating excitement for its future programs there is still nothing quite like the Upfront experience, even if it does feel somewhat outdated. Could we exist without it? Yes. Do we want to do so? That depends on whom you ask.
What follows is my annual hindsight critique of all the Upfront action. Before jumping in I'd like to acknowledge the tremendous amount of work that goes into producing all of these presentations. Even the smallest Upfront event is a massive undertaking.
Each network has been assigned a Jack rating after a collective assessment of its overall presentation, clarity of messaging, program positioning, star power and infotainment 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
"Broadcast is not an old medium being left behind by new ones," CBS Corp. President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves declared at the opening of his network's presentation at Carnegie Hall. "Far from it; we're at the center of it all."
Moonves was correct. CBS' stature as an entertainment giant was clear during every second of its spectacular event, from Jo Ann Ross welcoming the audience while sales messages flashed on her skirt; to a grand performance by the cast of "How I Met Your Mother," which began on video and continued with Neil Patrick Harris and his co-stars live on stage, to the very end, when CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler – once again the best presenter on any Upfront stage – revealed a commanding graphic of her network's fall schedule.
Seriously, CBS' presentation was so enjoyable to watch and so perfectly produced that it seemed to exist in a universe all its' own, towering as high above its broadcast competitors as its ratings often do. In addition to the rousing performance by the "HIMYM" cast, the presentation included a surprise appearance by David Letterman (to mark his 20th anniversary with the network) that included two uncomfortably long hugs with Moonves; appearances on stage by the casts of television's two highest rated scripted shows, "The Big Bang Theory" and "NCIS"; a routine by Robin Williams (star of the upcoming comedy "The Crazy Ones") and classy introductions by Tassler of dozens of stars from CBS' daytime and primetime lineups seated in the audience.
As always, throughout its presentation CBS impressed with the most dazzling graphics of the week, which filled the entire front wall of Carnegie Hall. Clearly, CBS' intent was to once again demonstrate that it is the biggest and best broadcaster of all – and it couldn't have been more successful at doing exactly that.
ABC – 4 Jacks
In a truly surprising development, after several years offering the least exciting Upfront events of all the broadcast networks ABC stepped up and over NBC and Fox to deliver one of the week's best presentations. I watched it at home on my computer, but the full impact of ABC's big show came right through my screen. It opened with a smart and funny video featuring "Scandal" star Kerry Washington, in character as crisis management expert Olivia Pope, giving last minute advice to Disney Media Networks Co-Chairman and Disney/ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney with a helpful assist from Jimmy Kimmel. Opening remarks from Sweeney and ABC Sales President Geri Wang were brief and on-point. As usual, ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee somewhat oversold each and every one of his new season shows, with one notable exception: "Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," a franchise so brimming with potential it cannot be overplayed.
The event also included appearances on stage by Rebel Wilson, star of the new comedy "Super Fun Night"; the casts of "Scandal" and "S.H.I.E.L.D.", and Jimmy Kimmel, who wore out his welcome last year but seemed fresh and funny during this, his eleventh scabrous Upfront routine. "Once again," Kimmel told the audience of advertisers, "we're throwing a bunch of shit at the wall to see what sticks. You guys are that wall." That pretty much says it all. Well done, ABC. All that was missing was a musical performance by members of the "Nashville" cast – and an after-party, which could have propelled you to a fifth Jack.
The CW – 4 Jacks
For a broadcast network that in many ways feels more like a ten-hour-a-week programming service, The CW every year puts on an Upfront event that rivals some of its bigger competitors and stomps on the others. There was nothing different this time around. Beautiful music was provided by The Dolls (DJ Mia Moretti and violinist Caitlin Moe) for the better part of an hour as the audience arrived, schmoozed and finally sat down. The actual presentation officially opened with a rousing performance by Swedish electro-house/punk duo Icona Pop of its current hit "I Love It." It was the best musical performance at a broadcast Upfront event since LMFAO hit the CW Upfront in 2011.
CW Entertainment President Mark Pedowitz strolled onto the stage accompanied by Ian Somerhalder and Nina Dobrev, the stars of his network's highest-rated series, "The Vampire Diaries." They were the first of many actors from new and returning CW shows who were brought out to say a few words to the crowd. The entire event moved along at a brisk pace, covered all of the network's television and Internet programming and marketing initiatives, and ended with a cavalcade of CW stars on stage, many of whom curiously were never introduced. My only real complaint is that The CW continues to deny advertisers and the press any face time with talent and show-runners. Would a post-show coffee hour be too much to ask?
Turner Networks – 4 Jacks
For some reason the presentation by Turner Networks didn't impress me as much as it usually does, even though it went off without a hitch and moved at a nice pace. Maybe I'm just tired of The Hammerstein Ballroom, still the dingiest and most cramped arena of the week. Or maybe I just miss the stars of past TNT hits "The Closer" and "Southland," who could bring excitement to any room.
Still, there was much to praise: TNT and TBS Programming President Michael Wright, always a pleasant host, brought the casts of his networks' new series on stage and introduced dozens of stars from returning shows seated in the audience. Conan O'Brien officially joined Jimmy Kimmel as a naughty Upfront week regular. ("I just want to assure everybody that I'm as pissed as the rest of you to be here," he told the rumpled crowd of advertisers and journalists who were beginning to hit the wall at the midpoint of a ridiculously overcrowded week.) Comedian Pete Holmes, a very agreeable fellow who in the fall will begin hosting a talk show at midnight following "Conan," also entertained.
Sometimes it's the little things that make the biggest impressions. Every year at its presentation Turner offers coffee, bottled water and an assortment of fruit and small pastries to each guest. This is an incredibly smart thing to do when trying to hold the attention of hundreds of tired and often preoccupied people. Turner also scored with its annual press-only lunch with the stars of its shows at Mario Batali's hot restaurant Del Posto.
Fox – 3 ½ Jacks
Fox is usually second only to CBS in putting together Upfront presentations that excite the audience right out of the box and keep the energy going right through to the end. So what happened? The network opened with a super-boring talking head video filled with media executives gushing about Fox, the future of media, etc. Then it was on to Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly and Fox Broadcasting Company Sales President Toby Byrne continuing with a bit too much talk. Fox at least showed off its stars on stage, but few of them were introduced. (The annual Fox Parade of Stars was much missed.) To continue with the blandness of it all, there weren't any of the exciting musical performances for which the network of "American Idol," "The X Factor" and "Glee" is known.
Happily, Fox avoided the dreaded hour by hour, night by night schedule explanation of years past, instead choosing to cobble together its new shows by genre. And the after party at Central Park's Wollman Rink was a smash as always. Fox gets an extra half-Jack for expanding the excitement of its day with something called a FanFront, which basically consisted of bleachers adjacent to the rink filled with fans who could watch and interact with Fox stars as they strolled the red carpet before, during and after the presentation. The Bacon Brothers played an acoustic set to further fuel the fandemonium of it all. Kevin and his brother Michael also entertained partygoers later in the evening.
NBC – 3 Jacks
NBC's presentation was very straightforward and very bland. It's as if they took a page from the ABC Upfront book (which even ABC tossed away this year) rather than the always dependable CBS Upfront bible. The network gets points for having The Roots play as guests filtered into Radio City Music Hall (and again as they left), but that was about it for any perceptible excitement. NBC made the same epic goof as last year, periodically showing live shots of casts from its new series seated in the audience on a giant screen without any formal introductions. This was executed in such a way as to perpetually interrupt NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke (who, despite the poor production planning, was noticeably more confident on stage this year than last). If the story of next season for NBC is the changes in its late night roster, why on earth didn't Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers appear on stage, as they have each done at many of NBC's past Upfront events? They could have at least riffed with NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt. And why were NBC's new season shows presented in such a hodge-podge? A few fall shows, a few midseason shows, a few bench shows, a few more fall shows – what a mess. It's a good thing that NBC has a couple of very promising new series, like "The Michael J. Fox Show" and "The Blacklist."
USA Network – 3 Jacks
I have such fond memories of its Upfront event last year at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall that I hate singling out USA Network as having the least effective of last week's major presentations. What went wrong? Nothing really -- it's more a matter of nothing feeling particularly special at far-flung Pier 36 on South Street, the site of USA's event, which was the last of the week. The entire presentation was hosted by members of the cast of "Suits," which became rather monotonous. (In recent years, actors from every one of the network's shows took turns on stage introducing clips, etc.) The wide-screen graphics, while impressive at first, became too repetitive. A lengthy video in which USA show-runners expounded on the excitement and growth potential of the digital space – something we hadn't heard anything about all week – brought the show to a halt. The less said about a production number featuring the cast of "Psych," the better. (Sorry, everyone.)
On the plus side: A terrific press-only lunch at downtown eatery The Fat Radish with the cast of USA's sizzling action-drama "Graceland." A pre-presentation cocktail party attended by talent at Pier 36. A very funny video promoting the premiere on USA this fall of "Modern Family," in which Phil Dunphy imagined familiar Pritchett-Dunphy family scenarios filled with four-letter words and bared breasts. A fine after-party with good food, great DJs (AndrewAndrew, recently seen on HBO's "Girls"), a performance by Passion Pit and, in a cramped but breezy outdoor space a beautiful view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges as the sun set on yet another Upfront marathon.
Additional Reviews by Simon Applebaum will be published tomorrow at Upfront 2013: Insights, Updates & Schedules.