Out Front of the Upfronts

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At the network upfronts, advertisers and the rest of us learned the fate of shows like 'Once and Again'

There are any number of reasons that TV critics resent movie critics. Owing to the prevalent and dated notion that film is still the superior and more culturally influential medium, our pals on the movie end get ample acreage and front-page positioning to review movies that fewer people will see in theaters than tune into an average episode of "Two Guys and a Girl." Meanwhile, we TV folk duke it out for space with the bridge column. A TV critic, no mater how witty, fat and proficient of thumb, will never become a syndicated celebrity. And above all, every May, film critics jet off to Cannes to sample the year's coming wares on the shores of the French Riviera.

We, on the other hand, get the upfronts.

The upfronts, which take place this week, are the New York City presentations where the broadcast networks unveil their fall schedules, mainly for the delectation not of the critics but of ad buyers, to whom they try to pre-sell advertising "up front," on the basis of what the networks annually promise will be the greatest season of public entertainment the world has known since the days of Aeschylus, and generally ends up with John Goodman playing a gay guy and trading insults with Orson Bean. Held in tony venues like Radio City Music Hall, the presentations involve elaborate stage presentations, comedy bits and star walk-ons — the aesthetic is somewhere between an awards show and an insurance dealers' regional sales meeting. They're followed by cocktail parties where the networks pimp out their celebs to mingle among laundry-detergent marketing directors and managers of affiliate stations, earning goodwill among semi-bigwigs who get to go home to Lacrosse or Abilene with a picture of themselves next to an artfully-concealing-her-chagrin Heather Locklear.

This while those bastard film critics are off sipping kir royales with Julia and Tom.

For you and I, however, upfronts are our first glimpse at the new shows and emerging trends of next fall's schedule. (Or schedules. Still facing the possibility of an actors' strike by fall, the networks may have to keep backup skeds of reality shows under glass.) This week, I will endure the upfronts for you — the hubris! the speeches! the little chicken kabobs! — and give you the rundown on what fresh hell the networks have in store for us, complete with entirely unfair and probably incorrect snap judgments based on the few minutes of selected clips the networks screen for the crowd. A few things we'll be looking for:

  • Where is the laughter? The sorest of network sore spots in the age of reality TV has been the sitcom; except for "Everybody Loves Raymond," the networks have not been able to launch a top-10 sitcom for years. This year, most of the networks have invested heavily in potential sitcom pilots. Of course, they did last year too, and we got "Bette" to show for it.

  • Who's in, who's out? This also is the week networks decide the fate of numerous shows "on the bubble," or facing possible cancellation. Some of the bubble shows include: "Once and Again" (rumored to be staying at ABC), "Gideon's Crossing" (rumored to be history at ABC), "Three Sisters" (we can only hope NBC kills it, but don't bet on it) and the WB's "Roswell" (possibly staying, possibly dying, possibly picking up and moving to UPN along with "Buffy").

  • Have we learned anything? Last season we saw that the reality trend wasn't just limited to "Survivor," and that last year's favorite programming crutch — building star vehicles around big stars — was as lame and misguided as you'd have thought. This week, the emphasis will be on sitcoms and dramas, but with reality shows ready to be thrown in as soon as those series fail. Meanwhile, the first murmurs we're hearing about network schedules have sitcom and drama vehicles in the works for Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen DeGeneres, Jason Alexander and on NBC — and I only wish I were kidding — Food Network chef Emeril Lagasse. (Note to NBC personnel: first person to say "Bam!" within an arm's length of me gets a Scripto up their nostril.)

  • What do you mean "we," paleface? Two years ago, the NAACP launched a high-profile campaign to get more minorities in lead roles on prime-time shows and lead positions behind the camera. Last year, the networks immediately remedied the situation, introducing several minority-cast family dramas, getting rid of the ubiquitous sassy Hispanic maid stereotypes in sitcoms and ushering in an era of universal brotherhood. At least, that happened in some parallel universe. On our planet, the networks did institute some behind-the-scenes hires and improved their casting record, at least vis-a-vis African Americans. There remain glaring disparities among other minority groups, but now that the media light's been off this issue for a while, one wonders whether the networks will have made any more progress this year — and whether the press will care, or just pepper execs with hard-hitting questions about where "Survivor 4" will be held.

  • Will the little chicken kabobs be any good? That, of course, was a joke. The little chicken kabobs will, as always, be uniformly excellent. Stay tuned.