The Upfronts: Kickin' it Down a Notch

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Emeril Legasse

To understand what bad times these are for the TV-ad-selling business today, you need only have sat in Radio City Music Hall Monday afternoon and listened to NBC Entertainment President (and former "Today" producer) Jeff Zucker explain what "good times" these are for the TV-ad-selling business. In 1999 and 2000 — those halcyon, bounteous days when dot-com pioneers bestrode the land like giants, tossing multi-million-dollar ad buys to networks like parade marshals tossing penny candy to children — NBC was strong and rich and could laugh at itself. Its upfront presentations were like Friars roasts, with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (of Conan O'Brien fame) ripping mercilessly on the network's programming mistakes. ("'Stark Raving Mad' was a great show — for me to poop on!") The implicit message: a healthy network can afford self-deprecation.

Times have changed. NBC's upfront presentation this year was almost entirely irony-free. Beginning with a cornball montage of classic moments in the network's history, NBC kept a relentlessly upbeat message (remember: "Survivor" did no harm on Thursday night! None!) that bespoke the nervousness throughout the industry about the soft ad market. Execs invoked the golden days of big-network television, reaching a ludicrous apex when West Coast president Scott Sassa likened "Weakest Link" host Anne Robinson to Groucho Marx. At times, NBC's pageant of self-butt-kissing even contradicted itself, as when Zucker's old "Today" colleagues came on stage and talked about his leaving their show to "save the network." Wait a minute — wasn't the message that the network never needed saving? Didn't they get the memo?

Plugging its "quality" (e.g., upscale) existing lineup, the network rolled out a mere 4 1/2 hours of new programming — three sitcoms and three dramas — asking advertisers instead to focus on "The West Wing" ("The most upscale show on any network!") and "Law and Order" and their jewel-encrusted white-collar audiences. The spin was, of course, that the network lineup was so solid that it needed little tinkering.

Mm-hm. Sure, NBC is currently leading the season among the advertiser-prized 18-49 demographic. But it's also under siege on various fronts, not least CBS's attack on its Must-See Thursday empire, which but for the grace of the colossal bomb "Big Apple" it would have lost altogether. And there was that little matter of the XFL. What's more, Zucker and other NBC execs have long acknowledged the network needs to build successful new comedies. So why was it launching the season with a paltry eight on the schedule (canceling "DAG," "The Fighting Fitzgeralds" and "The Weber Show"), launching only enough new ones to replace the ones it axed? Maybe it's a sign of tremendous strength. But if so, "a sign of tremendous strength" looks exactly like "a disappointing development season."

So what about those new comedies? The highest-profile so far is "Emeril," from the makers of "Designing Women," which casts cable-star chef Emeril Lagasse as, yes, a cable-star chef. Now, it's patently unfair to pass judgment on a new series after a couple minutes of selected clips. Having said that, if the full pilot of "Emeril" proves to be funny, I will eat my own foot in a port-wine reduction sauce. Forget Lagasse's apparent stiffness delivering lines in the few scenes we saw. Forget his almost pitiable, parody-of-himself speech to the advertiser crowd, which basically consisted solely of his catchphrases — "Bam!" "Kick it up a notch!" and "Happy happy!" All you need to know about "Emeril" is that its highlight reel — mind you, the funniest few seconds culled from an entire slaved-over pilot — actually used "You are the weakest link, goodbye" as a punchline.

The sad thing is, NBC even seems to know the show is trouble. Word has already leaked that it will be "retooled" over the summer. At one point in his remarks, Zucker even promised advertisers that NBC's other two new sitcoms were "the real deal," pointedly leaving out only "Emeril." So why was it on the schedule at all? Search me, but Zucker reminded advertisers that Lagasse is "one of the most popular personalities from everyday life" and noted that the show tested extremely well among focus groups — the NBC press release actually said Lagasse's appeal is "proven by research." Translation: "Look, you and I both know this is hoo-hah, but those slack-jawed, cornfed tourists we dragged into an air-conditioned screening room just love it when that guy says 'Bam!'"

The risible thing is, NBC seems to want to see "Emeril" as an example of the new regime's thinking outside the box. "We're going to bring shows into prime time that are not normally there," Zucker said. "We're going to bring people that are not normally there." In other words, "Emeril" is the big-league network staying fresh by borrowing something hip from cable. No. "Emeril" is the network borrowing something it thinks is hip from cable; in the real world, Lagasse's moment of edgy cult stardom peaked several years ago, around the time he got his live show and a Vegas restaurant and became some kind of human amusement-park attraction. Building a sitcom around the Crocodile Hunter, say, or "The Naked Chef" — that might have stunk to heaven too. But at least it would have been timely. And that Naked Chef's awful cute.

The rest of the Peacock's new brood, and some utterly premature impressions:

"Crossing Jordan." Jill Hennessy plays a feisty coroner likened, as probably half the female drama characters this upfront season will be, to Erin Brockovich. It's hard to judge crime dramas by trailers (and all NBC's new dramas are crime dramas) — they all look simultaneously taut and indistinguishable with their quick-cutting and explosive soundtracks. Problem: Everyone will think it's actually "Gideon's Crossing."

"Scrubs." The most promising trailer of the day, this single-camera, no-laugh-track comedy follows a group of young, pretty hospital interns on their stressful rounds. But these young pretties may at least be funny and appealing for a change. (It was worth it alone to see they're giving work to Sarah Chalke, a.k.a. "Roseanne"'s second Becky, and the so-appealing-you-could-pinch-him Donald Faison, a.k.a. "Felicity"'s Tracy.) Best line of advice, from a character pushing a dead woman in a wheelchair: "If you push around a stiff, no one will ask you to do anything."

"Inside Schwartz." So now that "The Weber Show" is canceled, you're wondering, what's going to be on TV while I take an extended bathroom break between "Friends" and "Will & Grace"? This year, it's this fantasy-sequence-drenched comedy about a young budding sportscaster whose inner conflicts are worked out through fantasy conversations with sports figures. (I.e., when a girlfriend gets too comically frisky on a date, a football referee materializes and declares, "Illegal use of tongue!" Like that.) The next "Sports Night"? Or the next "Herman's Head"? You be the judge!

"Law & Order: Criminal Intent." We understand that when the cast of this crime drama walked on set the first day, a siren blew, confetti and streamers fell and they were all given gift certificates for a spa getaway, as a prize for being the lucky cast to star in the 1,000th "Law & Order" franchise show. Surprisingly, it looks like, um, a "Law & Order" show. The gimmick here: you see the crime being perpetrated at the outset, from the criminal's perspective. A voice-over promised the audience, "You get the chance to solve the crime before they do." I don't quite get how that works, since you actually already know who committed the crime, but it can't be any more dumbed-down than "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," right? (Bonus news: next season, there will be a five-hour "Law & Order" miniseries involving all three "L&O" casts. Also, starting in 2002, 25 percent of your dreams will be original "Law & Order" episodes.)

"UC: Undercover." This fast-paced-looking crime drama focuses on an "elite" crime-fighting unit in LA. The show, said Zucker, promises "an exciting, diverse team in front of the camera and behind it." Which means a white character, a black character, a Hispanic actor (Jon Seda) playing a guy named "Jake Shaw" and a nerdy crypto-Jewish computer geek (Jarrad Paul, who was outstanding as the screenwriter in Fox's short-lived "Action"). Most important, this looks possibly to be NBC's bid at creating its own "CSI." Hey, the initials won't hurt.

And the after party? Proving that advertising executives are, media recession or no, still members of that platinum-clad NBC demographic: the "West Wing" and "Law & Order" booths were by far the most crowded with photograph seekers. And to answer your most pressing question of all: there were, alas, no little chicken kabobs, dear reader. The highlight by far was the barbecued pork in mini blue-corn-tortilla shells. The sliced steak, however, was a touch overcooked, but the ad buyers, NBC staff and journos lined up for it anyway, chewing poorly executed red meat — that emblematic food of the long stock boom — as if they needed another reminder, besides the numbers staring at them in their balance books, that the go-go '90s are indeed over.

Tomorrow: The WB and ABC