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BEST USE OF TALENT: CBS, always known for deft musical numbers at its presentations, had Alan Cumming do a mash-up of the Emcee from Cabaret (he is currently reprising his Tonywinning turn in a Broadway revival) and Eli Gold from the network’s The Good Wife.
NEWSIEST NUGGET: The biggest reveal of the week did not happen onstage. CBS, in its annual upfront breakfast briefing for the press, acknowledged that How I Met Your Dad had not received a spot on the fall schedule. Creative differences over the pilot were to blame. Nina Tassler, entertainment chairman of CBS, pronounced herself “heartsick.” Parts of the pilot “didn’t work out,” she said. “We tried to work out redoing the pilot. That’s not happening right now.” While the network ended the week on a strong note and will have bragging rights in the full-season ratings, HIMYD producer 20th Century Fox is reportedly shopping the show to other networks. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a peep about the dust-up during CBS’ main upfront pitch to media buyers.
BEST METAPHOR: New York native Frank Sgrizzi, executive VP of ad sales at Turner, came up with the week’s most elegant metaphor for the dizzying, multiplatform, ever-evolving media landscape of 2014. “We’re living in the entertainment version of the World’s Fair,” he said, as black-andwhite images on the screens behind him showed the iconic 1964-65 fair in Queens, N.Y. “Some of the ideas being developed may well define the business. Some, as we know, will not. But nobody likes to think about the future more than Turner.”
DAI (dynamic ad insertion) and “year-round programming” got workouts, as did “eventize.” (Jimmy Kimmel did expertly skewer the latter by noting that he recently “pregnatized” his wife.)
LATE-NIGHT THROWDOWN: Five late-night hosts (an upfront record?) took the stage, including Jimmy Kimmel’s cherished annual turn as ABC’s roastmaster, NBC’s new duo of Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, David Letterman for CBS and Turner’s traditional closing set by Conan O’Brien. (Cable hosts Andy Cohen and Keith Olbermann also factored in to the week.) Kimmel, O’Brien and Letterman all riffed on Solange Knowles’ elevator fight with Jay-Z. Joel McHale managed a neat double entendre by starting his NBC Cable appearance with the sarcastic line, “This is exactly the upfront I was expecting to be at this week.” While some took it as a reference to his reported talks with CBS, McHale added, “Oh, Community,” alluding to the NBC show’s cancellation. But the biggest late-night ovation was earned by Letterman, who will retire next year after a 22-year run on CBS. “I’ve been coming to these things for 30 years and I still have no idea who you people are,” he told the Carnegie Hall crowd.
BEST WEE-HOURS PARTY COMBO: Adult Swim and truTV teamed up to help upfronters blow off steam after a marathon week. Outkast performed at Adult Swim (after a video featuring a brief clip reel and a set from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog).
BEST SYNERGY: ESPN’s Kenny Mayne found an inspired way to work in a Disney movie/musical reference, nod to a current sports topic and plug for the net’s World Cup coverage. As Brazilian dancers shimmied through the Minskoff Theatre (home of the stage musical version of The Lion King), he donned the jersey of soon-to-retire New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter and, playing Rafiki, hoisted aloft a stuffed Simba. Mayne also got off some of the best lines of the week, riffing on jargon-y, compound marketing terms. “‘Fan-bassador.’ Together that’s badass,” he said. “It says, ‘Hey, I read the trades on my portable device. I’m informed by trendy social media and I’m not afraid to sound like a complete tool.’”
WORST DATA FLUB: ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee said the network had been No. 1 for “the past four years.” A few minutes later, he clarified, “I meant weeks, not years.” On an annual basis, ABC is still No. 4. Kimmel, ever vigilant, reminded everyone, “The ABC I work at is not No. 1.”
WORST TECH FAIL: As they trumpeted multiplatform offerings and urged the masses to tweet with abandon, most networks did not offer WiFi at their presentations. While there are many sound reasons for this, chief among them being cost and logistics, this LoFi reality seemed odd for 2014 and tested the patience of many at ESPN, ABC and other sessions where cell service, let alone WiFi, was hard to come by. At the National Cinemedia upfront held at the AMC Lincoln Square movie theater, attendees heard the usual “silence your device” message moviegoers always hear, followed by admonishments by a Disney rep not to record a scene from Pixar’s upcoming release Inside Out. A few minutes later, though, execs were paradoxically imploring the audience to activate their Shazam apps and try out a new cobranded service from NCM and Shazam. It was a perfect symbol for a disorienting week on the tech front.
WORST USE OF TALENT: NBC showed significant improvement, not only in the ratings, where it is a surprise No. 1 among viewers 18-49, but also in their upfront presentation. But apart from zinging sets from Meyers and Fallon, the network oddly stranded Fred Armisen and his Late Night band, which spent long chunks of the nearly two-hour session standing around. And talent merely waved from the audience, with major names from the NBC roster, including James Spader, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, MIA. Perhaps their absence was unavoidable, but the low wattage in the cavernous Javits Center took some air out of the balloon.
WACKIEST LOGLINE: That would belong to iZombie (The CW) The show is created by Rob Thomas, best known for Veronica Mars, so the plot isn’t exactly linear. Summing up: a young female protagonist is infected by zombies. Though she succumbs, she spends months living at home and periodically eating flesh, but only in responsible ways, before finding work in a morgue. There, she not only finds a food supply, but in a twist worthy of Medium, by ingesting the brains of dead people, she has visions of how they were killed, thereby becoming the police department’s most valuable, if mysterious, undead detective.
MOST PUZZLING MUSICAL CHOICES: A few networks delivered the goods in terms of musical talent—a re-formed Santana at Univision, Outkast at Adult Swim, Prince Royce and La Voz Kids at Telemundo. Apart from that, it was surprisingly day-old bread, with Pitbull at Fox, Neon Trees at The CW, Jessie J at NBCUniversal Cable. Look, we hear the same dozen songs in every trailer. (Even Lorde’s chilling cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” somehow lost its power through over-exposure.) But that shouldn’t mean we have to hear it live. (In fairness, let’s direct that same note to the NewFronts presenters, who ought to know better, but still paid big bucks for Pharrell to sing “Happy” and American Authors to do “Best Day of My Life.”)