Affiliates: No Net Exempt From Dramatic Retooling

Station execs say Fox has the most work to do; NBC’s 'Blacklist'-to-Thursday move is biggest bombshell
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Another upfront week has come and gone. The sizzle reels sizzled, as they are designed to do; now all the rookie shows have to do come fall is maintain the buzz they got in mid-May in Manhattan’s grand theaters. A poll of attendees revealed that Fox has the most work to do, NBC moving The Blacklist to Thursday is the juiciest story line and no network is exempt from dramatic retooling for the new season—not even CBS.

“The challenge is always, how much more time do you have with veteran shows,” says Emily Barr, Post-Newsweek president and CEO. “It’s, when do you say good-bye and pass the baton to a new show?”

Fixing and Foxifying

The dilemma certainly applies to Fox, as the network hustles to produce a ratings-hoarding successor to make up for American Idol’s precipitous slide. “It looks like Fox has a real problem on its hands,” says Bob Prather, president/CEO at Heartland Media. “American Idol has been the big bell cow, but what replaces it? What comes close to that?”

Former Idol judge Simon Cowell was present during upfront week, but it wasn’t at the Fox shindig. Cowell popped in at Univision to talk up his 2015 show La Banda, a competition program focused on unearthing the next breakout Latino boy band.

The Fox affiliates spoke favorably about the peeks at development they got when they assembled in Las Vegas last month, while the mood was mixed after viewing the network’s presentation in New York. “There was some good stuff, but it’s kind of all over the place,” says one GM who requested he be unnamed. “There wasn’t a lot of synergy—it didn’t feel real Foxified. The quality is good but what’s the niche we’re going for?”

Several veteran attendees agreed that, while Fox has the most to prove, CBS—with a booming prime and Thursday football—pitches from a position of strength. “It’s still the clear winner,” says Prather.

While NBC’s protracted prime woes spelled interminable lineups of show clips each year on upfront day, relative stability in that key daypart meant a more manageable batch of rookies on display May 12. There was grumbling about the drab, way West Side, convenient-for-no-one venue in the Jacob Javits Center (host Seth Meyers: “If Jacob Javits was alive today, he’d say, “What, Radio City is booked?”), but affiliates gave the network high marks for turning things around, and for buzzy new shows like Constantine.

“When you think about where we’ve been the last 10 years, it’s pretty incredible to be where we are today,” says Jim Conschafter, new NBC affiliates board chairman. “I’m impressed with the amount of investment NBC-Comcast has made in broadcast television. They’re choosing the best of the best.”

Primetime Is Rhimes’ Time

ABC got plenty of buzz for the Shonda Rhimes block on Thursdays, which sets up a spicy battle with NBC’s The Blacklist on its new night. Shawn Oswald, president and general manager at KHBS-KHOG Fort Smith-Fayetteville (Ark.), watched ABC’s presentation remotely and dug what he saw. “We got very upbeat watching the live feed,” he says. “There was a lot of positive energy for my people and I; we felt it.”

Another upfront week trend was greater emphasis on late-night TV, with Meyers and Jimmy Fallon cracking wise for NBC, David Letterman doing so for CBS and Jimmy Kimmel with his usual skewering of those in the room. “Wickedly funny,” recalls Barr. It all made late night seem cool again, say multiple station chiefs.

It’s understandable that broadcast veterans get jaded about upfront week, especially after years of viewing show clips that drip with promise, only to see them limp through the first season. But Oswald, for one, was stoked as he landed in New York ahead of The CW presentation—his third-ever upfront week in Manhattan. “I absolutely love doing this; this is how we set ourselves apart in terms of what we do,” he says. “It sets the tone in terms of how people feel about the upcoming season—especially the buying community.”

VILLARAIGOSA GIVES ESTRELLA EXTRA STAR POWER

Spanish-language diginet Estrella TV brought out something of a secret weapon when it presented its pitch to the ad community in New York May 12. Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles from 2005 until last year, addressed the crowd on the merits of Estrella. Villaraigosa was brought on board earlier in the year as a strategic consultant, and works on the business side with both current and potential sales clients.

Villaraigosa said he kept noticing reporters from Estrella parent Liberman Broadcasting while he was mayor, both at City Hall and around town. (Besides Estrella, Liberman owns five stations in major markets and its own production studio.) “I saw an opportunity to work with a Latinoowned Spanish language network,” he says. “One that understood that Latinos’ palates don’t just like telenovelas.”

With Villaraigosa’s term winding down last year, CEO Lenard Liberman approached him through a common friend, and found an interested party. “I just felt he could approach folks and help us in the community as well,” says Liberman, who says one focus for Villaraigosa is working with corporate clients on their minority initiatives.

The telegenic politician has popped up on the air a few times, and Liberman says a role perhaps in televised debates might be a fit.

Speaking at Estrella’s Hudson Hotel dinner last week, the super-smooth Villaraigosa said Estrella offers unique “human capital” and an entrepreneurial spirit, and represents an opportunity for corporate America to not just score some good will in the Hispanic community, but to make big bucks there. “You’re going to do well when you make those investments,” he says.

Villaraigosa isn’t in the 2014 California gubernatorial race, but may jump in next time around. “I’d be honored to one day be governor in the state where my grand-father [emigrated],” he says.

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