It’s Baaaaaaaack!

Call it an upfront comeback as optimism (finally) returns this year
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Let’s be honest: Upfront week has increasingly stunk the
last couple of years. For one thing, the parties, like so
many child stars, have either dropped way off or died altogether.
Multiple extremely influential television-industry
journalists have, for instance, carefully documented (and mourned) the depleted supply of
shrimp. Nielsen is said to be working feverishly
on a metric directly correlating previous
year’s ratings fall-offs with this withering
supply of shellfish. And you thought
that they weren’t innovating fast enough
over there.

The malaise, however, has gone beyond
the soirees, as there have been plenty of
other reasons upfront week has turned from
winner to bummer of late.

First, we’ve had a run of really terrible
presentations in recent years, though with
varying results. Fox’s ill-fated show in a New
York armory a couple of years ago couldn’t
have gone much worse, but all that network
did then was go out and haul in a record
upfront cash grab—not exactly a rallying
cry for the importance of a huge upfront
presentation.

But stinkers don’t always turn out so well.
The low point was probably NBC’s upfront
a few years back, when the biggest thing
they had to crow about was the return of
Jerry Seinfeld to the network. And we’re
not talking about Jerry in The Marriage Ref,
a show he’s not even on most of the time.
That would’ve been OK.

Nope, 2007 was when NBC strongly
touted a series of interstitials featuring Jerry
promoting one of his movies—Bee Movie
from DreamWorks. That’s right: NBC took
valuable upfront time to push commercials.
This basically led NBC to wave the white
flag on the whole upfront presentation idea
for a couple of years.

It’s always fun to joke about the parties
and the presentations, but it’s better news
to report that for the first time in years, everyone
is understandably looking forward
to upfront week once again. Even the most
jaded television veteran can’t help but feel
good heading to New York. As someone said
to me last week, “Upfront week is starting
to feel like upfront week again.” Optimism
is back in vogue.

The reason is simple: The industry had
two serious problems heading into last year’s upfront week, and a year later, both
have been corrected.

The first major issue involved money; it
wasn’t a question of whether the upfront
would be up or down, but rather, how low
it would go. This year, however, bean counters
are eagerly sharpening their pencils:
There is apparently money in them thar
hills. It’s pretty hard to find anyone who
disagrees with the idea that there will be
an increase in the sheer amount of dollars
flowing into the 2010 upfront. And from
both a bottom-line and buzz perspective,
we could all use it.

Now, many people warn that an increased
upfront means little in the grand scheme of
things, that total ad spend will be flat or
even down on the year, and that’s all that
matters. To those people, a simple message:
Go to hell. What are you, Mets fans? Just
enjoy the current ride, and quit focusing on
the inevitable fall.

The second big fix is that the networks
seem to have regained something they had
lost around this time in each of the past
couple of years: our trust. Due to a perfect
storm of reasons ranging from the writers’ strike to a collective development slump to
an increase in competition from elsewhere,
the networks just couldn’t get many rookies
to stick.

Two years ago, we went through all that
song and dance, and just one show—one
show—stuck on any network: CBS’s The
Mentalist
. So we stopped believing what
they told us about these hot new projects.

But this week last year, the networks
unveiled a slate that looked like it had a
bounce in its step. I bought in, and put a
photo of NCIS: Los Angeles’ LL Cool J on
B&C
’s cover with the headline “Call It a Network
Comeback.” Thankfully, the viewers
responded, as a bevy of new shows from
Glee to Modern Family to The Good Wife became
legitimate rookie sensations.

So this time, as we all sit in those big
Manhattan venues while the networks tell
us how big these shows are going to be, we
should all believe them just a little more
than we have recently. And then head to the
parties to stuff our faces with shrimp.

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