As upfront week began I found myself wondering if the annual extravaganza of presentations and parties had any value anymore, because anyone who was receiving alerts from certain Web sites or was actively engaged on Twitter already knew which shows each network was renewing, which ones they were cancelling and which pilots they were picking up, and why. With the exception of a few scheduling questions there was simply nothing left to learn. So what would be the point of sitting through all of those presentations, and why would the networks want to continue spending vast fortunes to put them on? Indeed, Conan O'Brien at the Turner presentation was moved to suggest that next year the whole thing shift to Skype.
But as the week progressed I realized yet again that when it comes to clarifying a network's brand message, generating excitement for its future plans and showcasing its talent, there is nothing quite like the upfront experience. As overloaded as it is, especially with so many cable networks squeezing into the mix, the week takes on its own unique momentum, and if one paces oneself and moves through it the rewards far outweigh the drawbacks.
Overall it was a good week for broadcast and cable networks alike, at least in terms of getting their messages out to advertisers and the press. What follows is my annual hindsight critique of all the upfront action. But before jumping in I'd like to acknowledge the tremendous amount of work that goes into producing all of these presentations. Even the smallest upfront event is a massive undertaking.
Each network has been assigned a Jack rating after a collective assessment of its overall presentation, clarity of messaging, program positioning, star power and infotainment value.
The ratings are as follows:
5 Jacks - Excellent
4 Jacks - Very Good
3 Jacks - Good
2 Jacks - Fair
1 Jack - Poor
0 Jacks -Worse than bad
CBS (5 Jacks) Anyone who might wonder why CBS usually takes top honors for the week need only have walked through Carnegie Hall before its presentation even began to understand why it remains the network to beat for upfront effectiveness. For the better part of a half-hour before the show started, a vivid display of glamorous and exciting images and videos featuring all of CBS' stars filled the massive screen above the stage. It was so well-conceived and executed that it was mesmerizing to watch. The rest of the presentation was similarly impressive, from the usual opening remarks by CBS chief Leslie Moonves to the boundless enthusiasm of CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler to the introductions of cast members from almost every new and returning CBS show who were seated in the audience. An opening video in which "2 Broke Girls" stars Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, in character as waitresses Max and Caroline, struggled to make their way to Carnegie Hall and distribute their cupcakes, ended with Dennings and Behrs dashing down one aisle handing out their sweet treats. They were joined onstage by CBS Network Sales president JoAnn Ross, also in a waitress uniform, who remarked, "Sorry, we don't deliver. We over-deliver!" There was also a performance by rapper and "NCIS: LA" star LL Cool J and classical opera singer Danielle de Niese, an appearance by Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning (CBS has the big game next season), an appreciably fast presentation by Tassler of the network's new fall shows and a fine party afterwards. When it comes to generating first-class upfront excitement, nobody does it better than CBS.
Fox (4 Jacks) Fox's presentation was well done, as always, but for the first time in longer than I can remember I felt that the network didn't maximize its talent base quite as effectively as in years past, which is why it has dropped one Jack from last year. There were no performances by anyone from "Glee," "American Idol," "The X Factor" or "So You Think You Can Dance." A closing song from Mary J. Blige seemed awkward and out of place, even if she had been a mentor this season on "Idol." Nor were there any particularly heartfelt moments, the likes of which Kiefer Sutherland could be counted on to deliver during his run on "24." But Fox opened the show in traditional grand fashion by having stars from its shows assemble on stage. Bringing in Ryan Seacrest to host was a smart move, and the disarming charms of "New Girl" star Zooey Deschanel were nicely showcased in a funny little routine with new Fox star Mindy Kaling. The big announcement that Britney Spears and Demi Lovato are joining "The X Factor" had everyone talking, even though the two young women didn't do very much when they were brought out on stage with Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid. Everything moved along crisply and efficiently, and afterwards Fox kept its reputation intact by throwing the biggest and best party of the week at Central Park's Wollman Rink. (CBS and Fox both get special credit for throwing post-presentation parties and giving everyone a chance to mingle with talent and executives alike, especially because ABC, NBC and The CW chose not to do so.)
The CW (4 Jacks) In some respects, The CW's annual upfront presentation is relatively modest compared to the other broadcasters, perhaps because the mini-network only programs 10 hours of primetime a week. But it always puts on a grand show nevertheless, and this year's was somewhat more important than usual, in that it marked CW Entertainment president Mark Pedowitz's debut as an upfront host. He did a fine job, but how could he not? He was surrounded by stunning vertical, horizontal and curved video screens that were dazzling to watch as they flashed images of current and future CW talent across the stage area of the New York City Center. Most of the clips he introduced played well. And his audience was charged up at the start thanks to a powerhouse performance by Flo' Rida. The CW brought out almost all of its stars at the end of the show, leaving many of us in the audience feeling somewhat frustrated that we wouldn't have the opportunity to talk with any of them. (Too bad they didn't give the super-popular casts of "The Vampire Diaries" and "Supernatural" a few moments of their own on stage earlier in the presentation.) I think it's time for The CW to bring back its post-presentation lunch and extend the all-too-brief momentum it always generates.
Turner Networks (4 Jacks) If the venue (The Hammerstein Ballroom) were a nicer one, this joint presentation by TNT and TBS might have hit the big 5 on the Jacks meter. Regardless, this was a breezy and highly impactful affair, from the clips to the assortment of impressive stars (including the casts of "Dallas," "Major Crimes," "Southland" and "Cougar Town") to – at last – the elimination of the inane banter between those stars on the stage. Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin was once again the biggest star of all, opening the presentation by wheeling out an antique overhead projector (on an especially squeaky cart) to ensure that the show would go on even if another power surge lead to multiple equipment failures, as legendarily happened last year. As always, Turner gets extra credit for remembering that journalists play a key role in getting out early word about their upcoming series and schedules, once again hosting a grand post-presentation lunch for press and talent only at Del Posto.
USA Network (4 Jacks) After a spectacular upfront presentation and party last year that came earlier in the season, USA decided to move into the already crowded big week itself, taking the Thursday afternoon slot that once belonged to Fox. It was a risky gamble that paid off. No matter how event-weary the advertisers and journalists in the audience might have been the overall response to USA's grand presentation and pleasant party at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall was extremely favorable. The network stuck with what worked so well last year, having the stars of its many series guide the audience through the presentation without a single executive stepping foot on the stage. (The talent also worked the party afterwards like true professionals.) "Burn Notice" star Bruce Campbell took the stage at the end and pumped up the exhausted audience when he noted, "I'm the last presenter at the last upfront!" He then offered to buy everyone in the auditorium a cocktail and send the bill to NBCU Cable Entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer. Erykah Badu closed the show with a performance that had many USA stars on their feet. Christopher Gorham, Mark Feuerstein, Callie Thorne, Sarah Shahi, Piper Perabo and the peerless Mr. Campbell can really bust a move.
NBC (3 Jacks) NBC returned to the majestic Radio City Music Hall after two years in an unremarkable ballroom at the midtown Hilton Hotel and its presentation was much better for it. But in making this move it also dropped the relatively intimate post-presentation luncheon with its executives, stars and show-runners that had been one of the best such gatherings of the week, which cost it a half-Jack in these rankings. There was much to get excited about during the presentation itself, including the controversial opening remarks about audience measurement by NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert that had everyone talking; a performance by "Smash" stars Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty of their series' signature song "Let Me Be Your Star," a hugely entertaining sizzle reel at the start starring Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon and a moving rendition of "I Believe I Can Fly" by newly minted "Voice" champion Jermaine Paul. But something about this event overall felt a bit flat. It might have been the delivery by NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt and NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, who seemed somewhat dwarfed by the cavernous Radio City stage. Or maybe it was their failure to introduce any of the dozens of stars seated in the audience after showing clips from their series. Instead, we saw them on screen simply sitting in their seats, some of them in dark shadows. They weren't even asked to stand and wave. (CBS and Turner were infinitely better in handling their star introductions.) And where the heck was brand new "America's Got Talent" judge Howard Stern -- on the radio, maybe? Had he been there I'm certain people would still be talking about whatever he had to say. Oh well, at least we had Crystal the monkey, star of the upcoming sitcom "Animal Practice" and the fall season's most exciting new talent.
ABC (3 Jacks) Even watching online, it was easy to see that ABC made an effort to improve on its rather bland upfront presentations of recent years. This year's show was all very formal and complete, from the opening remarks by Disney/ABC Television Group president and Disney Media Networks co-chair Anne Sweeney to ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee's cheerful introductions of the network's new shows to the many clips from all of them. ABC even brought stars back to its presentation, having cast members from "Revenge," "Once Upon a Time" and "Modern Family" appear on stage. As always, Jimmy Kimmel was on hand to entertain at half-time in comically rude fashion. "I'm sick of it," he said of the upfront. "I'm sick of new shows. I'm sick of the old shows. I'm sick of research. I'm sick of demographics. I'm sick of Anne. I'm sick of Paul and I'm getting sick of you [the audience]. I hate to say it but how many times do I have to tell you this is bullshit? It's an upfront so I'll be up front. We don't know what we're doing!" To be honest, I think that after ten years Kimmel's upfront appearances are getting old. I'm still a fan of his, and of his show, but it's time for ABC to find someone or something new to liven up this all-important event.