At upfronts, the best defense…

The ubiquitous Regis drives other networks to distraction

This wasn't so much fun. Usually, the broadcast network upfronts are brimming with bravado, chock full of chin-up, chest-out boasts and brash predictions. But not this year.

For network executives without ABC after their names, explaining the fall schedule to Madison Avenue advertisers last week seemed more like detailing a strategy for surviving a bloody game of Nielsen dodge ball.

The goal: Don't get hit by Regis. He'll cream you.

Every so often, rival networks have to acknowledge superior programs, so they congratulate competitors for the brilliance of Cheers, the social import of All in the Family, or the willpower of NBC to stick with Hill Street Blues. But Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Executives who risk it all to find a hit are getting hammered by ... a game show! Nearly anytime Regis wants to do it.

There were some truly surreal moments of Regis envy during the upfronts, but none as weirdly metaphoric as the opening comments of The WB Chairman Jamie Kellner. He strode to the podium at a New York hotel last week and, after a perfunctory nod to ABC's success with the game show, wandered into a stream-of-consciousness monologue straight out of Felicity's Existentialism 101 textbook: "I want to tell you a story about a neighbor of mine, Buddy Dullfinger, that I had when I was a young boy. He was the first kid in our town to get a hula hoop."

He continued, "Buddy's a little bit portly, and nobody liked him until he got the hula hoop. Buddy actually used to let us use it, and he would count, and when he got to 10, he'd take it away from us. And pretty soon we all hated Buddy.

"And then we all got our own hula hoops, and nobody ever talked to Buddy again. Six months later, all our hula hoops were in the garage, and we were all back to doing what we were doing before."

A Regis parable!

It's not like there weren't other, more ordinary moments that demonstrated the strangely symbiotic connection between advertiser and programming. The cast of The West Wing, for example, actually got a standing ovation from the media buyers. You could almost see the NBC advertising department calculating how much it could jack up the rate of a 30-second spot there.

The cast responded by reading "letters" from viewers. "Dear Sirs," read series star Allison Janney, "I love The West Wing. My friends and I are organizing a petition drive asking people not to buy any products not advertising on your show."

Outside presentation venues, pickets from the Screen Actors Guild, whose members are on strike against commercial producers, marched in circles chanting and carrying signs that read, "Advertisers are spending $8 billion this week on network advertising alone."

But upfront events, Millionaire aside, are calculated to play down the business and play up the fun. So CBS' Les Moonves appeared at the beginning of the CBS upfront dressed as Moses, a reminder that CBS' Jesus miniseries kicked ass (and Regis) last week in its Sunday debut. Well, of course, joked Ray Romano, "Sunday is His turf." At NBC, the cast of Will & Grace opened the afternoon by singing-flawlessly-parody arias attesting to the greatness of NBC's prime time.

Over at UPN, Dean Valentine was featured in a taped presentation going down to the beach and asking young men what they wanted from that male-skewing network. In another taped interlude, Dean called his new boss at CBS. "Whaaaaaat's up?" he barked, to CBS' Mel Karmazin. "Whaaaaaat's up?" Karmazin barked back.

When The WB introduced Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar and Angel hunk David Boreanaz to the stage, minutes passed before they got there, and, when they did, they were breathless and disheveled. Don't tip the Enquirer about a torrid romance. Apparently, they just missed their cues. To fill time, WB Executive Vice President for Programming Jordan Levin began dancing. It wasn't pretty.

By and large, however, upfront was about Millionaire and its damned omnipresence. At the CBS presentation at Carnegie Hall, the network posted a giant night-by-night grid of the competitive schedule. "Yet Another Millionaire," it read at the location of the game show's fourth night. "Hopefully," said Moonves earlier in the day, about Reegemania, "they will put so many of them on, eventually they will blow themselves up."