Upfront Reviews: ESPN, Turner Networks, NBC Universal Cable Networks

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Continuing with our coverage of all the Upfront Week action, what follows are reviews for ESPN, Turner Networks and NBC Universal Cable Networks.


Venue : The Minskoff Theater on W. 45th St. off Broadway, just a block from Nokia/Best Buy Theater, the below-street space playing home to this event the last few years. Perhaps to highlight the move, ESPN offered more pre-show action beyond welcoming attendees with bagels, juice and mascots or cheerleaders strolling along (they were as plentiful as ever). Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, co-hosts of ESPN Radio/ESPN2's Mike & Mike in the Morning, did a special "pre-game" version of their popular simulcast from a balcony box, complete with analysis of local sports action the night before (and reaction to the NFL Draft picks by the NY Giants and Jets). At one point, Golic warbled a tune, fulfilling his passion for karaoke on the spot. In the most unique pre-event moment at any upfront this year,Numbers Never Lie co-host Jemele Hill went off-script from her bit with co-host Michael Smith, thanking him for saving her life the night before when she choked during a meal. Smith applied the Heimlich manuever. Between the banter, an ESPN "house band" held court on the Minskoff stage. Yes, they did their funky take on the SportsCenter theme...all together now on the ending: DAH-DA-DA, DAH-DA-DA.Grade: 5 Jacks

Presentation: The elements of ESPN's annual public pitch don't shift much year-over-year. They present videos showing both the variety of sports they cover and how they impact society, mini-interviews with local sports stars, examples of unique ad campaigns, chunks of irreverent comedy, usually from the head of sportscaster Kenny Mayne, and ESPN president and co-chairman Disney Media Networks John Skipper and his colleagues making their ad sales appeals. Again, stimulated by the new venue, the elements came off as more cohesive, fresh, frisky and appealing. Welcoming back Michelle Beadle to SportsNation after two years with NBC Sports Network, Skipper invited Beadle to check what upfront she was at. Beadle took the ribbing in stride without missing a beat. Keith Olbermann, another returnee to this fold, mocked his past life as the first ESPN2 personality way back when. Mayne had the audience in hysterics with his essay on made-up buzzwords. And ESPN broke from tradition with its first musical number, celebrating its final World Cup Soccer tournament coverage this summer, complete with samba dancers, drummers and confetti. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

News : SportsCenter debuts its new digital-powered set, with two separate studio areas and 114 monitors, in Bristol, Connecticut late next month. (The dedication was this past Monday, with a press tour scheduled for May 22.) SEC Network, launching August 14, now has carriage deals with U-verse, Dish Network, Google Fiber and National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative but is still awaiting its first cable operator contract. An audience measurement project monitoring ad effectiveness across ESPN's TV, digital/online, print and radio ventures is coming soon. Grade : 3 Jacks

Host : Rotated among Skipper, other ESPN executives and talent. Grade: 4 Jacks.

Overall Grade: 4 Jacks The most energetic, balanced production from ESPN in several years. Amazing what a change of scenery can do.

Now for some additional comments -- and Jacks -- on two showcases covered earlier this week by Ed Martin:

NBC Universal Cable Entertainment

Venue: The stage of Javitz Center's North Hall was far more animated here than at NBC's kickoff effort earlier in the week. There, attendees saw NBC's logo in the center and nothing much on the sides (except the 8G Band to the right). Here, there were bright colors and shifting pix of the talent on NBC Universal's various cable nets on both sides of the stage. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

Presentation : The concern attendees had going in was how NBC would display its cable channel universe without going overboard on time. NBC responded in three ways: A) Limiting the focus to seven networks, all entertainment-oriented, as in USA, E!, Syfy, Oxygen, Bravo, Esquire and Sprout; B) Tying them up with the "All Together" tagline, and C) Adopting the approach that worked so well at USA's upfront closer last May -- highlight the talent and turn the majority of time over to coming attractions. A three-way approach was also used to emphasize the "All Together" theme in videos. For a running joke, network personalities were called in to audition for the coveted "upfront host" role. A stunning clip near the top had those same personalities pose for the camera in black-and-white. The Soup host Joel McHale came on stage near the finish to announce "Sizzle ... the new network of all sizzle reels, all the time," and blow the tag line to a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger joke. However, Sprout's presentation time was relegated to passing references in the videos. The channel (whose talent was among the 120 celebrities taking part) deserved a better showcase. Grade : 4 Jacks

News : World Wrestling Entertainment declared that its Monday Night Raw and Smackdown programming on USA and Syfy respectively will continue under a new multi-year deal. Ditto Total Divas on E! With premieres of Rush, SatisfactionandComplications ahead, USA promised to launch more original series in the next 12 months than in the channel's entire history. Grade : 2.5 Jacks

Host : NBC Universal Cable leader Bonnie Hammer and ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino led this charge well. Grade : 4 Jacks

Overall Grade: 4.5 Jacks The crowd wanted a lively multi-network presentation from this organization out of the block, and they got it. They didn't get a lot about Sprout, and that's unfortunate. How about breaking them out into a separate event?


Venue : The Theater at Madison Square Garden, holding its second big upfront/NewFront offering in recent weeks. Instead of the spectacular kinetic staging Google/YouTube put on with its Brandcast, TBS/TNT went stark with a ring-shaped stage that reminded me of The Time Tunnel. Big drawback: because much of the stage was dark, stars of various series had to be escorted from the wings to take their post-clip bows. We could see that activity and it was very awkward and distracting. Grade: 2.5 Jacks

Presentation : Along with devoting most of the time to TNT's new original programming focus and that "Boom" tag, there was time not to take the direction too seriously. Credit that to TBS/TNT president Michael Wright's self-parody, admitting to the audience that his agony over coming up with new hit originals impacted his family life. One of the best senior executive turns at any upfront. Plus credit Steve Carell for playing a heckler in the front rows when Wright went on too long about TNT's new aspirations. "Play the comedy tape!," Carell yelled several times before Wright gave in. And yes (as Ed said), in an upfront week filled with late-night hosts skewering everything about TV, Conan O'Brien's closing monologue came off tired and way mean-spirited. Grade:4 Jacks

News : TNT is looking more into work from independent producers/production companies rather than sister Time Warner entity Warner Bros. for new series development. Of seven series on the development docket, just one is from WB --President Xthrough its Warner Horizon unit. Agent X, the Sharon Stone-starring pilot, is still under consideration. Three series are in development at TBS. Grade : 3.5 Jacks

Host : Wright came into his own, no doubt about that. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

Overall Grade: 4 Jacks The approach was solid, hampered by the awkward transportation of series stars on-and-off stage.

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