TV Upfronts: The Desperate Search for Households

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Today marks the start of the “upfronts,” the annual New York City ritual in which the major broadcast networks announce their schedules for next fall. Like all things televisual, the upfronts are a little bit about art and a lot about money. More important, they're a heartfelt reminder of the really important folks that all the actors, writers, producers and executives of that crazy Hollowood dream factory actually live to serve.

Oh, you thought I meant you? How cute! No, let me explain.

Remember commercials? Those 30-second films about beer and cars? The ones you used to make a point of watching during the Super Bowl until Janet Jackson's boob popped out and they stopped making the funny offensive ones? The ones you used to watch between acts of TV shows, before you got TiVo or started watching everything on DVD? Yes, well, there's still a multi-billion dollar industry based on the premise that people still watch and pay attention to them.

It's the advertising industry, not the viewers, that are the target of this week's presentations, allowing the networks to spend the coming weeks and months selling ad spots on the new shows. Long before the hype starts for the fall season's new shows, network executives will be standing on stages and making promises about demographics, households, and various other code words for the ability to connect businesses with your wallet. We will hear slightly desperate rhetoric about the reach and continuing relevance of network TV. For a brief, blissful week — at least in the words of the marketing executives — it will be 1973 again, when the broadcast networks delivered vast hordes of obedient consumers to advertisers, and cable was just something you found coiled up on the deck of a boat.

Every network has new shows to announce, but each takes a different story into the upfronts. ABC, having shot into contention for the top of the ratings with "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," will be in full-on gloat mode. NBC, which went from first to fourth place in one year among the crucial 18-to-49-year-old viewer group, will be in full-on crisis-management mode (to the delight of rivals who have suffered several years of NBC gloating under the self-congratulatory slogan "The Quality Shows" — until they lost "Friends" and gained "Joey" and became "The Desperation Shows.") CBS hope to show that there is life beyond "CSI" sequels; Fox will swear that it is more than just the "American Idol" network. UPN will remind us that it airs shows besides "America's Next Top Model." And the WB will once again refuse to reveal the secret location of the amniotic tanks where it clones attractive adolescents to star in its teen dramas.

Given the out-of-the-box success of the unusual dramas "Lost" and "Housewives," of course, you can expect next fall's new shows to include a number of risk-taking shows that break from the usual formulas and demand much of their viewers' patience and intelligence. Ha! Just kidding! Seriously, though, look for some new shows with monsters and hot 40-year-old suburban women. Or maybe hot, 40-year-old monsters.

Along with new shows, the upfronts feature a slew of announcements about returning (and not returning) programs — those that will be renewed, canceled, moved, rejiggered or spruced up with a new cast member, usually Heather Locklear. Among the questions we'll look to answer this week: Will we be able to look forward to another season of "Arrested Development" and "The Office" next year? Will our grandmothers and ministers be able to look forward to another season of "Joan of Arcadia"? Will ABC have any flashy plans to fill the "Nightline" time slot after Ted Koppel leaves? Will any of the pundits moaning about Ted Koppel leaving "Nightline" actually have watched the show more than five times in the last year?

The fun, or at least the schadenfreude, begins later today with NBC's upfront at Radio City Music Hall. Don't touch that dial. There'll be plenty of time for that once the new shows actually premiere.