Not long ago, I was in a pre-upfront meeting with a few network executives—some of the ones who had the guts to actually talk just before the upfronts—when I asked one of them to tell me what their hot projects were.
When one started to recite some of the bigger bets, another exec interrupted, looked right at me and started to laugh. “Man, are you cynical,” the second exec said. “You don't believe a word we're saying.”
I hadn't said a word, but apparently they thought they saw something on my face. And now you know why I never play poker.
Actually, I happen to think that particular network does have some nice possibilities. But the sense of cynicism is widespread. The broadcast networks are going to have to make some converts this upfront week because, as a whole, they have a faith problem.
This year, like every year, B&C takes a look at each network's needs and what it has in the pipeline. But right now, the networks all have the same simple yet crucial need. It is a collective necessity: Network television must prove it can still launch new hits. And I mean real breakouts, not a show that does a 3 rating in the demo so its network can call it a hit. A grade-A hit, not a hit graded on a curve.
This past season hasn't helped. Out of all the new projects that came from last development season, which was admittedly hurt by the writers' strike, there was exactly one breakout: CBS's TheMentalist. One.
There have been some other nice players like Fox's Fringe, but the bottom line is, out of all the new bets, only the Warner Bros. cop drama has really paid off so far.
Yet every year at this time, along comes a bailout the auto industry would be jealous of: the upfront buying season. In recent years, viewing patterns have begun to shift away from broadcast, but every spring the advertisers come around and give 9 billion or so reasons not to change a thing.
This year, however, many prognosticators think that—finally—the upfront marketplace will fall off. Many doomsayers are predicting double-digit percentage drops in overall volume anywhere from 10%-20%. That means network television isn't just struggling with the faith of some media members and viewers, but with the most important target audience: ad buyers.
This truly could be the most crucial upfront week in network television in many years. With cost-cutting top of mind, networks have to somehow sell advertisers on the belief that they are still the place to put the big and often ROI-ambivalent buys.
It's easy to go network-by-network and say that CBS needs a deeper bench as its hits get older, Fox needs a comedy hit, ABC needs a do-over from last year, and NBC needs anything to build around.
But, really, what's the point? As I said recently, network-versus-network competition is getting passé. Plus, the numbers between the networks are closer than you think. It's not like American Idol, with mega-star Adam Lambert comically outclassing a bunch of pretenders. Really, this year it's about network television against the world.
Until recently, the Star Trek franchise was considered over. Then J.J. Abrams came along with a cinematic masterpiece that in one fell swoop revived the film property, and would have me thinking about another TV series. And that is the kind of revival I am shamelessly hoping network television finds this fall, beginning this week.
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