Upfront News and Views: A New Direction for Spike, Now Targeting Women and Families, Too

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Venue: Cipriani 42nd St., the stately dining/event hall across from Grand Central Station. Nothing outside the building suggested a Spike showcase would happen here, the opposite of last week's Nickelodeon presentation where a mural on W. 33rd St. guided attendees in. Few pre-show frills inside. The stage was lined by 2001-like monolith slabs, with the network's new logo displayed on the podium and the walls behind. Grade: 3 Jacks

Presentation: Spike returned to the scene of its last Upfront showcase almost a decade ago to make three points. First, the era of programming for men only is over. With "The Ones to Watch" the new tag line, offering content that encourages female (and in some situations, family) viewing is the mandate. "We are reaching out to passionate men and women, a group we call the drivers," explained Spike president Kevin Kay. Second and third, the content ahead will take an ambitious leap, in part by involving top celebrities in some fashion, and by making time for scripted series.

Kay and other network presenters invoked several variations on "go big or go home" in their remarks. When it comes to scripted, added executive vice president Sharon Levy, "I promise you we'll be part of the new golden age of TV." As for star power, there was plenty to catch from start to finish, starting with Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, walking out, pretending to be Kay.

"How about changing the name to Rock TV?" Johnson asked the audience. "Doesn't that sound so much better?" The star wattage continued with Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley (joining the cast of the upcoming miniseries Tut) and clips from Lip Sync Battles, the new series based on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show segments. (One with Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway lipping to Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball is destined for viral glory, trust me.) Lip host LL Cool J was there with series co-creators John Krasinski and Stephen Merchant. Grade: 4 Jacks

News: Johnson's production company will focus its TV activity on Spike, starting with live specials. What and when will be disclosed later, and the agreement may extend to unscripted and scripted series development. In scripted, everything series is still under development and Tut will debut this summer. Emergency Broadcast, about people who "keep Armageddon at arms' length," according to Legendary Television executives, joins a roster of series contenders which includes historical The Crusades, cyber-crime study Deep Web and science-fiction Red Mars. The next miniseries after Tut may deal with the rivalry between Donald Trump and Steve Wynn for casino supremacy in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For unscripted, Lip Sync Battle (launching next month and already generating major buzz) picks up a second season, and Family Takeover (families receive tough love for resolving their financial issues) and Sweat Inc. (fitness trend competition) will debut this fall. Grade: 3 Jacks

Host(s): Kay and Levy make a good duo. They seemed to be having as much fun with all the celebrities as the audience. Grade: 3.5 Jacks

Overall Grade: 3.5 Jacks Spike made the most of a presentation that was strong on new direction and programming development but weak on critical specifics (such as debut dates).

First Special Note: After only two Upfront events (Nickelodeon and Spike) there is an undercurrent: The bashing of Nielsen for undercounting viewership. At Nickelodeon's showcase last week, the opening tape had two young Nick personalities in the office of Viacom CEO Phillipe Dauman, aghast at what they read in an audience measurement For Dummies book. Spike's contribution this past Tuesday was in rant form, delivered by the host of Bar Rescue. "You know who's underinflating the air? All those geniuses who underinflate my audience!" the host insisted. "They're using 1980s technology. Last Friday, they switched from Beta to VHS!" Keep watching to see if this throwing of shade on Nielsen gets duplicated by others, or remains a Viacom-only dig.

Second Special Note: Kudos to the Cipriani chefs for coming through with a tasty Chilean sea bass with tomato glaze. Early nominee for best 2015 Upfront eats.

Next up: GSN/Game Show Network

Other news from the passing parade:

A sort-of about face at Discovery Communications. A few weeks after deciding not to stage its annual April upfront event this year, Discovery will hold a press breakfast to discuss upcoming developments March 31. Time Warner Center will be the meeting place and CEO David Zaslav will be hand.

One side impact of this outbreak of scripted TV series is an outbreak of new places to break into the TV field, especially for women and people of color. Networks such as HBO and Fox are expanding their new talent diversity programs for actors, writers and directors; special projects like The Next MacGyver from the National Academy of Engineering are coming together, and Denver-based SeriesFest will join the growing number of pilot exhibitions/competitions around the country this summer.

Worldwide chip maker Nvidia will enter the field of devices that make TVs smart (Roku, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, etc.) in May. Set-top box Shield, priced at $199 a unit, will be promoted as a "revolutionary TV, game console and supercomputer all in one," according to Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang. The unit plays Android apps and games, include those streamed by Nvidia's Grid service.

Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!

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