NBC never fails to disappoint. No matter its corporate owners or top executives, this broadcaster, more than any other, always finds a way to stir up upfront week beyond simply introducing the new series it has lined up for the following season. (Remember when it pulled out of upfront week altogether? Or when it pushed back in with its infamous "infront" party?)
In the network's grand return to Radio City Music Hall after two years in an unremarkableHilton Hotel ballroom, NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert got the crowd going by suggesting that it's time for the industry to shift focus from C3 to C7 ratings, which would give NBC and the other broadcasters a distinct advantage in future negotiations with advertisers. He further stirred the pot with a brief attack on Auto Hop, the technology now employed by the Dish Network that allows its subscribers to skip commercials entirely with the push of a button on their remotes. "It's an insult to our joint investment in programming," he told the crowd. He also called for stronger cross-platform measurement, something network executives have been calling for (or at least suggesting) for many years.
Harbert certainly grabbed the attention of the audience, though not necessarily in the entertaining way a network typically does when it's trying to pump up enthusiasm for its new shows. That task fell, initially at least, to a sizzle reel put together by NBC stars Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon (who really should have been on stage to introduce it) in which they discovered an envelope of "super-secret screeners" of shows on NBC's fall schedule, clips from which made clear that NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt was going to turn all of NBC's series into musicals, from "Grimm" to "Law & Order: SVU" to "Meet the Press." ("Press" host David Gregory looked to be having the time of his life in his clip, lying back on a desk and singing while a bevy of beautiful women seductively moved around him.)
A performance by Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty of "Let Me Be Your Star," the signature song from their series "Smash," followed, filling the cavernous Music Hall with the kind of network-relevant energy and excitement that is crucial to the success of these events. As the song neared its conclusion the four chairs from "The Voice" were brought on stage, the first three twirling around to reveal judges Adam Levine, CeeLo Green and Christina Aguilera, with Greenblatt in Blake Shelton's seat. It would have been more impactful if Levine, Green and Aguilera sang, but it fell to "Voice" season two champ Jermaine Paul to represent for the show later in the presentation with a performance of "I Believe I Can Fly."
Paul is a fine singer, but a slow (if stirring) song was not what NBC needed by the time he took the stage, as the energy in the room was beginning to fade. That had a lot to do with the somewhat methodical and not at all spontaneous sounding program intros by Greenblatt and NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, and by the strange structure of those introductions. After the presentation of clips from each new show, cast members from those programs seated in the audience were shown on the giant HD screen above the stage, but they weren't introduced, they weren't asked to stand up, and many of them were in shadows.
As for the shows themselves, only an unwise observer would make profound judgments based on brief clips on a mammoth screen. But the new NBC talent that made the greatest impact, in Radio City and, I'm told, outside on the red carpet, was an adorable monkey named Crystal that is featured in the new comedy "Animal Practice," about a New York City veterinarian. The clips didn't look particularly promising, but scene-stealer Crystal is a front-runner for breakout star of the season, at least on NBC.
I'll say this: The monkey at NBC, which never left its seat, seemed to impress more people than did Britney Spears at Fox. She was the big star at the latter's presentation yesterday afternoon, pertly positioned on stage along with Demi Lovato mid-way through the presentation as Simon Cowell formally announced that the two singers were joining the judges' table on "The X Factor." Neither performer had very much to say, which had many in the audience wondering what they would bring to the troubled talent show in terms of articulate criticism or constructive support. At the after-party there was much speculation among journalists, not all of it favorable, about how they will fare on the show. But everyone agreed that they will attract millions of new viewers, at least initially.
Fox's presentation, once again at the Beacon Theater, was the usual fast-paced and informative affair. It began with a very funny video in which characters from "New Girl" were shown interviewing characters from other Fox shows as potential new roommates. Then came the usual introduction of dozens of stars from the network's new and returning series.
In a welcome surprise, the always professional Ryan Seacrest was on hand as host, which likely makes him the first person in history to host two upfront events for different networks in one season. (He emceed the E! event just two weeks ago.) Once again, Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly took advertisers and journalists through the details of the network's fall and midseason schedules in fine fashion, keeping the enthusiasm level high.
The one odd thing about Fox's presentation was the absence of a performance by any of the fine singers from the network's music driven shows. Many cast members from "Glee" were there but they didn't sing a note. (The audience would have loved that.) There weren't any present or past "American Idol" contestants in the house. (Any combination of this year's outstanding top seven would have been welcome.) Not even "X Factor" winner Melanie Amaro or any singers from that show's top four. Instead, Mary J. Blige was brought out on stage for a quick number at presentation's end that felt strangely out of place, given the perpetual reinforcement of the Fox brand and the highlighting of its talent that remained strong throughout the show. Indeed, NBC offered more home grown musical talent earlier in the day. Who saw that coming?
Finally – and keeping in mind that clips don't necessarily mean anything -- it looks as though Fox may have the most-talked about new series of the 2012-13 season in its very creepy midseason thriller "The Following," in which Kevin Bacon will make his series debut as a FBI profiler on the hunt for a serial killer who is organizing a cult of murderous psychopaths. It certainly won't be feel good TV, but it is already an attention-grabber.