A row behind me at Madison Square Garden Theater, where the UPN upfront and fall schedule preview is about to begin, an ad executive is amusing herself by cell-phoning her friend, who is 25 feet away across the aisle. "I'm over here. Over your right shoulder. Your right!"
You can excuse the thousands of advertisers here if they're a little bored. It's the last day of upfronts, they've been going to presentations all week, they had to get up early after a long night at the CBS cocktail party. Plus, this is UPN. No offense to the very large wrestlers on "Smackdown!," but UPN is traditionally the upfront with the highest bombast-to-news ratio. You sit through two hours of smoke machines, loud music and bluster, and the network announces three lousy new shows. (As opposed to three new lousy shows, which is a judgment we can't make until they let us see the pilots.) It's the kind of upfront that makes me thankful that I have solitaire on my Palm Pilot.
Well, after the presentation is finished, I can tell you without qualification: UPN is my new favorite network. Not because of the programming. Not because of its executive leadership. Because UPN this year managed to finish its entire upfront in just over an hour.
The presentation started with the kind of culture clash only the age of runaway media consoolidation can produce. For years, Les Moonves, president of CBS television, has spent upfronts week extolling the virtues of such blue-hair favorites as "Diagnosis: Murder" and "Touched By an Angel." This year, thanks to the Viacom-CBS merger, he also heads UPN, the young-male-oriented Limp Bizkit of networks. He was played onstage by DJ Jazzy Jeff, of "Fresh Prince" fame, while giant screens projected UPN's slanty new logo and slogan: "UPN: Turn It Up!" (I'll let you change the adverb at the end of that phrase yourself. It's too easy.) "I'd like to give props to my dawg DJ Jazzy Jeff for waking us all up this morning," Moonves said. "I can't believe I just said that."
UPN did in fact have just three new shows to announce. (The really big news next season is that "WWF Smackdown!" is now "WWE Smackdown!" because of I'm not making this up a legal run-in with the World Wildlife Fund.) "The Twilight Zone," a remake of the '60s anthology classic, has Forrest Whittaker collecting an easy paycheck in the Rod Serling role; the clips looked appropiately spooky, but the series will all depend on the writing. "Haunted" (ex-cop discovers he can communicate with the dead) again aims spooky, but UPN has a history of trying and failing with supernatural franchises. "Half and Half," a new Monday-night sitcom, replaces the canceled "The Hughleys" with a story of two estranged half-sisters (one grew up rich, one poor) who move into the same apartment building.
"Half and Half," by the way, has a mostly African-American cast, like the other three sitcoms on the same night: "The Parkers," One on One" and the excellent "Girlfriends." To the press and most of the public UPN usually downplays the fact that it segregates its mostly-black comedies on the same night, perhaps keeping them from gaining a bigger crossover audience: hey, we just happen to have four sitcoms that "flow well together"! The fun thing about upfronts is that you get to hear network executives tell the ad executives who pay for their programming why they really program nights the way they do. "UPN has been dedicated to developing urban prgramming for years," said new UPN entertainment president Dawn Ostroff. "That's why our Monday night is the most-watched night of TV among African Americans of any network."
Um, not that we're segregating our shows or anything.
"Overachieving is overrated," says a character played by Randy Quaid in "The Grubbs," a Fox sitcom announced as part of the network's 2002-03 schedule. A cynical man might say this is also the lesson to be drawn from Fox's last season. Perennially knocked around for airing decline-of-civilization stunts like last week's Playboy Playmate search special, Fox put out the most critically acclaimed, innovative lineup of shows of the year: "24," "The Tick," "Undeclared," "The Bernie Mac Show," "Pasadena" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." With the exception of "Bernie Mac," viewers stayed away in droves; the only thing keeping Fox's ratings collapse from being as dramatic as ABC's was that they didn't have as far to fall.
On the other hand, "Celebrity Boxing" was a huge hit.
One might fairly ask: Are good, risk-taking shows worth the bother on network TV? Does the fault lie in Fox or in ourselves? Fox executives didn't exactly answer the question yesterday, but they were sticking to the line that Fox was still planning on taking the high road. None of them mentioned "Celebrity Boxing," or any other of Fox's quickie reality specials. But neither were any of the clips they showed as immediately arresting and unusual as "24" when they previewed it last year.
On Monday night, Fox is dealing with the loss of "Ally McBeal" by turning to "Ally" creator David E. Kelley, who produced "Girls Club," a drama about three young women lawyers (um, did he not get the memo that "Ally" was canceled?). What does it look like? Search me. Kelley's written a script Fox swears it's great! but the pilot doesn't start shooting until next month. It stars "Vanity Fair cover girl" Gretchen Mol, Kathleen Robertson and Chyler Leigh as friends since law school, said Kelley on stage, in a story of work and relationships that is "as complicated and diverse as their lives." Plus, they're hot.
The network introduced three other dramas to plug various holes (including the one left by the last-minute cancellation of "Dark Angel"). On Wednesday, there's "Fastlane," a frenetic, slick buddy cop show that's so fast-paced, there's no time for a space between "Fast" and "lane." It's fast! It's loud! It's fastloud! It's got girlscarsguns! Aaagh! I can't feel my face! (In a moment of unintended hilarity, the audience started laughing when former "90210"-er Tiffani Thiessen was introduced as the buddy cops' boss.)
Friday adds two high-concept dramas. "Firefly," a long-awaited "science-fiction Western" from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon, was reportedly even longer-awaited when Fox was considering holding it for retooling. But the teaser clips were intriguing, with a nifty high/low-tech look (it's eight hundred years in the future, yet the characters still use guns with bullets). On "John Doe," a mystery man washes up on an island and wakes to discover that he knows, literally, everything in the world, except who he is. (Maybe the missing-persons department on CBS's "Without a Trace" could help.)
Oh, and there's more plenty of holes to fill on Fox this year. Following "Bernie Mac" on Wednesday, Mac's fellow Original King of Comedy Cedric the Entertainer gets a comedy-variety show. And on what Fox apparently seriously plans to call its "Sunday Night Cavalcade of Comedy," it's adding two sitcoms: "Oliver Beene," yet another nostalgia-oriented concept (looking something like "Malcolm in the Middle" set in 1962), and "The Grubbs," with the aforementioned Quaid as a "live-action Homer Simpson," which, at least judging by the trailer clips, looks like one more Homer Simpson than we need.
And "24"? It'll be back next season ("Andy Richter" will also return in midseason) thankfully, with its real-time format intact. What saved it, despite its less-than-blockbuster ratings, was, it turns out, quality. At least "quality" as defined by the advertising community. People who make a lot of money apparently pay more attention to critics' reviews than people who don't, which is part of the reason shows like "24" and "The West Wing" draw a disproportionately affluent audience. And advertisers like that. "24" attracted enough of these more-equal-than-other-viewers viewers to stay on the air even though its overall rating would have canceled a show with a poorer fan base.
There's a lesson for you in all this, America: read TV critics, obey our wise commands, watch the shows we tell you to watch and you will become rich beyond your wildest dreams!
As for Fox, well, a network can't live on quality alone. "Celebrity Boxing 2" airs next week.