The lights having dimmed on this year's splashy network upfront presentations, it's much easier now to see the glaring truths networks prefer to shuffle into the background. Given the tepid ad market, coupled with the wise decision by all the networks to have their celebrations clock in at 90 minutes or less, there was plenty left unsaid.
Kevin Reilly took the stage at Radio City Music Hall to kick things off for NBC—the traditional start to upfront week. But the network's news division got barely a mention. Forget that the Today Show is the biggest earner in Reilly's empire, and NBC Nightly News and Meet the Press make cash hand over fist…that's just what Reilly seemed to do: forget it. Could it be because Nightly has lost its dominance to ABC World News; and that, while Today is still clearly on top, numbers are down?
What a contrast this was to ABC at Avery Fisher Hall the next day. Right up top, the network trumpeted its healthy news division, name-checking Charlie Gibson, Diane Sawyer, and Bob Woodruff and giving props to a resurgent Nightline. At this same event two years ago, nobody on stage even acknowledged the network had a news division.
Remember CBS' news anchor, Katie Couric? The network was a little hazy on the name last week. Save a passing reference to 60 Minutes, Couric received the persona non grata treatment at Wednesday's upfront at Carnegie Hall. Last year, Couric bounded on stage to thunderous applause, greeted as the one anointed to resurrect CBS Evening News. But everybody at the hallowed Hall knows how that turned out: Ratings are down significantly from that first flush after Couric took the helm, and even if the quality of her newscast is improved, the show seems mired in an endless downward spiral.
It wasn't only the network news business that stayed largely in the background throughout much of the hoopla. NBC seemed to forget its cost-cutting measure of filling its grid with cheap, unscripted fare almost every night of the week from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. And while Reilly touted his classy quartet of Thursday sitcoms—My Name Is Earl, 30 Rock, The Office and Scrubs—he conveniently forgot to explain why the network didn't turn out a new comedy deemed “done right” enough.
ABC and CW showed glossy clips from, respectively, the eight and six rookie shows each plans to launch. Neither addressed the Herculean task of marketing so much new product. Both networks look like they have some worthy projects— ABC's Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money and CW's Aliens in America and Reaper are highlights—but other shows with potential could easily get lost in the dross. ABC has slated Daisies and Money, along with Private Practice—another drama with promise—all for Wednesday nights. Scheduling three newbies like that has never worked—a detail also left unsaid.
In all the shouting, Fox left some questions unaddressed as well. Among them: What will the network do to reinvigorate an American Idol that, while it's still a monster hit, saw a dip in ratings this year? Things there are, to quote Randy Jackson, “a little pitchy, dawg.”
CBS says this is the year of an “edgy” Eye network, with new shows like the wife-swapping drama Swingtown and the music-laden Viva Laughlin. You can't blame them for trying, but there's so much high-concept stuff all over the new grid that what passes for hip seems positively mainstream. Both CBS and Fox, for instance, have series about undead detectives.
But I guess all that stuff wasn't worth mentioning.
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