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Mixed Drinks, Mixed Messages

5/19/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Another over-the-top upfront week has come and gone. And while the broadcast networks' presentations were as splashy as ever, never have I seen such a cacophony of mixed messages. Media buyers everywhere are undoubtedly nursing a nasty case of cognitive dissonance.

Kicking things off at Radio City Music Hall, fourth-place NBC had much to prove. Entertainment President Kevin Reilly put on a brave face for a sober presentation of the network's lineup of new dramas. But NBC Universal TV Group chief Jeff Zucker undercut that show of confidence with an endless laundry list of NBC's multiplatform offerings that smacked of overcompensation and had the audience of ad buyers checking their Blackberries.

Touting numbers of page impressions for NBC U's recently acquired Web portal, iVillage, is all well and good, but what about the number of impressions ER gets on any given Thursday? As MediaCom Chairman Jon Mandel says, the networks “need to start using the ratings language of the Internet” to sell TV.

ABC's presentation the next day at Lincoln Center was arguably the slickest. Entertainment President Steve McPherson dazzled the crowd with a full-freak-on dance duet to AC/DC's “You Shook Me All Night Long,” à la Dancing With the Stars (see Flash!, p. 5). But it's unlikely the network will feel so footloose and fancy free this fall, when it attempts to launch 11 new shows. As CBS' Executive VP, Chief Research Officer and ratings guru Dave Poltrak noted the next morning at his network's press briefing, only 2.6 new shows per network draw a larger audience each fall than the series they replace.

That factoid no doubt played a part in CBS' cautious presentation at Carnegie Hall. Adding only four series to a handful of solidly performing rookie shows from this season, the network hoped to send a message of stability. But with an opening film montage that featured stars from your grandparents' CBS and ended with the long-dead Ed Sullivan introducing the live cast of Jersey Boys, the Broadway musical about the Four Seasons, things looked downright arthritic. Not exactly the kind of entertainment that convinces twenty- and thirtysomething media buyers that your demographic is getting younger every day. Even Mariah Carey's knockout rendition of “We Belong Together” to promote a CBS concert special for next season couldn't quite revive things.

Wrapping up on Thursday, presentations from The CW and Fox could not have been a greater contrast—not only with each other but with the networks themselves. Tight, disciplined and on-point from start to finish, the nascent CW's pitch—that it's the place to be for the 18-34 crowd—was so convincing that you could almost forget that some of the shows in its mix of WB and UPN series likely peaked in the ratings some time ago. Plus, ad buyers surely appreciated that the network got them in and out in under an hour.

Sadly, the same could not be said for Fox. The long day's journey into its fall season presentation was such a mess that it almost obscured the fact that the network is arguably in its strongest position in years and that several of its new shows might actually work.

As no less an industry sage than Irwin Gotleib, global CEO of WPP Group's Group M, said at Fox's afterparty, the upfront presentations were a costly waste of time. In the end, the millions upon millions that the networks spent did more harm than good. As one colleague suggested, perhaps it's time for the networks to do what so many companies do around the holidays. Bag the swag, all the free booze and jumbo shrimp, and send out cards to all the media buyers that read: “A contribution to a worthy charity has been made in your name.”

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bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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