Unlike the annual broadcast network upfront spectacles, which are somewhat traditional staged presentations followed by lavish parties, the basic cable upfront events are a mixed bag of promotional experiences. Some of them are quite intimate, like last week's CMT presentation and luncheon for a few dozen VIP guests. Others are almost over the top, like last year's Syfy extravaganza, which included a private performance at the Foxwoods Theatre of the Broadway musical Spider-man: Turn off the Dark. Whereas the broadcast events efficiently educate thousands of guests about the current state of the networks, the strength of their returning shows and the promise of series they plan to unveil during the upcoming television season, the basic cable events very effectively define or redefine network brands and, perhaps of equal importanceon the media landscape, their distinctive personalities.
In this arena size truly does not matter. The CMT event mentioned above, held in the relatively modest theater at The Museum of Arts & Design (and a room several stories up where a post-presentation luncheon was served), managed in less than one hour to offer business and programming updates from network executives, an informative appearance by Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos (on hand to introduce their upcoming observational reality series Cheer, about an elite cheerleading team) and a terrific mini-concert by one of the hottest new bands in country music, The Band Perry. (Melissa Rycroft and her husband Tye Strickland were scheduled to attend and promote their upcoming show Melissa and Tye: A New Reality, but they were unable to leave their home in Dallas because of the tornadoes that had devastated many of the outlying areas of that city the day before.)
I have made many trips to Nashville over the years to attend the CMT Music Awards and all of the parties CMT throws before and after them. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but I absolutely felt the spirit of the network and its home city last week in that little theater in midtown Manhattan. (What's more, I was motivated to watch the second season premiere of Texas Women and the series premiere of Southern Nights last weekend, largely because I had seen them previewed at the presentation just a few days before. I'll note here that the former might appeal to fans of the Real Housewives franchise and their many clones, and the latter should entertain anyone who enjoys The Real World and Jersey Shore. It's not a bad promotional vehicle for the distinctive charms of Savannah, either.)
Later that same day – and at the other end of the spectrum – was the typically dazzling Bravo upfront event, held in two giant spaces at Center 548 and packed wall to wall with hundreds of advertising executives, trade and tabloid journalists and, most significantly, talent from everycurrent Bravo series and several upcoming ones (that would be thirty-something Bravolebrities in all). I'm not sure if this will disappoint the many hard-working folks who planned the party, but the ride in a freight elevator from the street to the party (complete with a specially recorded greeting from the network's high-energy announcer Rick Gomez) was a highlight of the evening. (There was something about the downtown vibe in that 'vator that put me in instant Bravo mode, while also creating the impression that I was entering a very exclusive New York party. Come to think of it, I was.) Two hours of partying with Bravo executives and guests (and enjoying food by the network's own Chef Roble Ali) was followed by a ride in that elevator back to the ground floor, which had been transformed into a giant studio for a taping of that evening's special one-hour episode of Watch What Happens Live, featuring most of the Bravolebrities at hand and hosted, as always, by Bravo's ever-present Andy Cohen, one of the smartest programming executives in the business.
Anyway, Bravo last year produced what I believe to have been the most extraordinary basic cable upfront event ever – simultaneous Bravolebrity-filled parties in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, all of which were telecast live on the network during the season finale that night of Top Chef. (The New York bash also featured a spectacular sit-down dinner for several hundred people with food from last year's two Top Cheffinalists.) Last week's Bravo bash wasn't quite as historic and unforgettable as that one, but it may turn out to be the most memorable basic cable upfront event of 2012. I know I'll never forget waiting to get a drink at the bar for what felt like forever while Interior Therapy star and perfectionist Jeff Lewis educated the bartender on how to make a particular cocktail.
I would also like to give my compliments (admittedly belated) to ABC Family, which tried something new this year by hosting an upfront luncheon at the spectacular Mandarin Oriental Hotel restaurant featuring a lively panel discussion with show-runners from four of itscurrent and upcoming series. It may not have seemed so special to the journalists in attendance, several of whom have attended many press conferences/panel discussions with hundreds of series producers, but it was certainly something different for the hundreds of advertising executives in the room. My only complaint about this event would be the network's failure to identify the many ABC Family stars seated around the massive room (including two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster, star of the upcoming series Bunheads, and Spirit Award winner and recent Golden Globe nominee Shailene Woodley of The Secret Life of the American Teenager).
I was also impressed, as always, with FX's annual party at the Lucky Strike bowling alley and lounge. There is no more informal or relaxed an upfront gathering than this one, at which FXexecutives and most of the stars from most of their series bowl, play pool and hang out with advertisers and journalists. The special guest at this year's party was Charlie Sheen, star of the upcoming comedy series Anger Management, but I never saw him, because I was too busy at the other end of the alley talking to cast members from Sons of Anarchy and Justified. They are two of the very best shows on all of television, but you wouldn't know it from the way their attitude-free casts were acting at this refreshingly laid-back gathering.