When it comes to Upfront presentations, you have to hand it to Fox - this is one network that still knows how to put on a show while putting across a message.
The message this year was all about the new 2009-10 series Glee, a comedy-drama with music about a rag-tag high school glee club from Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy that will enjoy an unprecedented sneak preview last night following the final competition installment of American Idol. (Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly describes it as "the world's biggest grass-roots screening," designed to kick-off several months of positive buzz.) Giant colorful balloons with the Glee title treatment emblazoned on them were positioned along 55th Street in front of the New York City Center, the home in recent years of Fox' Upfront presentations. (Each balloon was anchored by two or three people, not unlike the balloon management in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but on a much smaller scale.) This display had advertisers and journalists talking about Glee before they even entered the venue, and it seemed to make an impression on civilian passers-by, as well. (So did a giant poster for the show that was draped on a building across the street.) At the conclusion of Fox' presentation, as guests spilled out of the City Center, cheerleaders dressed like those in Glee were performing routines on the sidewalk.
It was a short walk to Fox' after-party, held once again at Wollman Rink in Central Park, and sure enough, those giant Glee balloons were positioned at the 6th Avenue entrance to the area, where they served as guideposts for party attendees and were also seen by thousands of people throughout the evening. (The party began at 6, and the balloons and their handlers were still in place when I left at 8:45 p.m.)
The balloons may not have been as exciting as the cow and the decorated segway personal transporters Fox had on 55th Street last year to jazz advertisers about its new science-fiction series Fringe, but one could argue that they were seen by many more people.
The glee over Glee continued inside the City Center. Guests received handouts with excerpts from the high-profile rave reviews for last night's premiere before the presentation began and the event ended with a performance of the Queen classic Somebody to Love by the show's talented cast.
In keeping with this song and dance theme, I was expecting to see past winners from the summer reality series So You Think You Can Dance do their thing on stage, as well. Which brings me to what was arguably the biggest news about Fox' fall schedule: The network's decision to run a second cycle of Dance in the fall following the conclusion of its annual summer run, which begins this Thursday. Dance will run on the nights that are home from January-May to American Idol, with a two-hour competition show on Tuesdays and a one-hour results show on Wednesdays (followed, appropriately, by Glee). The idea here, as explained by Reilly, is to implement a fall cycle of Dance “so we don't have to completely reconstitute our schedule when American Idol comes on."
Reilly also noted that this new cycle of Dance will bring more female viewers to Fox in the fall.
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That all makes sense, at this point, anyway, but I was struck by the fact that much of Fox' "new" schedule for fall 2009 was built around a modestly successful five-year old competition show that has never become one of television's unscripted blockbusters. Dance has always had a low-budget feel to it, which isn’t much of an issue in the low-stakes summer season. But it is going to need a whole new level of energy and excitement if it is going to stand out in a more competitive broadcast environment. Happily, Reilly suggested that the producers of Dance will make a few changes for its fall edition.
Except for its Dance moves and the renewal of the low-rated Dollhouse, there were no other major surprises in Fox' new season schedule, though I did not expect the network to move Fringe, which has yet to find a large audience, to Thursday opposite strong competition on CBS, NBC and ABC. If Fox really wants to stake a claim on Thursday it should have moved the still powerful House to 9 p.m. and punched a hole in the night. This would have been the boldest scheduling move made by Fox since it plunked The Simpsons opposite NBC's then-formidable The Cosby Show (also on Thursday) in 1990.
Traditionally, Fox is the last network to present its new fall lineup during Upfront week, but this year it went first, snatching the spot once occupied by NBC, which announced its new fall series two weeks ago with small-scale presentations to advertisers and a press conference for journalists. Fox' Upfront event has always felt like a closing night party, but this year it had the vibe of an opening night celebration, which set a much-needed positive tone for the week to come given all the television-bashing that has taken place in the media during recent months. Indeed, Fox Broadcasting Company Entertainment chairman Peter Rice and FBC Sales president Jon Nesvig both spoke during the presentation about the continued strengths of broadcast television versus other media, with Rice declaring that people are "watching more television than ever before and broadcast television reigns supreme."