The Upfronts: NBC's Nervous Reality

  • Share
  • Read Later
At the upfronts — the annual dog-and-pony shows in which the networks unveil their new fall shows for the ad executives they hope will buy commercials — the glitziest network stars and the mightiest executives all become humble together, bowing and scraping before the people who make their billion-dollar business possible.

So at Monday's NBC upfront, at Manhattan's Metropolitan Opera House, you could see the stars of "Will and Grace" trotted onstage like so many singing bar-mitzvah dancers, performing a "rock opera" that twitted executives and sang the network's praises. At one point, the prerecorded music crapped out, leaving the four singing a parody of "Dancing Queen" a cappella — and let's just say it revealed that Debra Messing is, um, not a professional singer, a fact underscored when she sang a duet with costar Harry Connick Jr., who is. If Fox is smart, they'll score a tape of the performance and have Randy, Paula and Simon go at it during their own upfront.

Somewhere in the medley, to the tune of "Pinball Wizard," they referred to NBC president Jeff Zucker as "that tiny hairless genius / who made Must-See TV." If only Zucker were so lucky. NBC does continue to dominate Thursday nights with its Must-See lineup, but its biggest linchpins — "Friends" and "E.R." — not only predate his taking the job in 2000, but went on the schedule in the era of grunge rock.

There was a lot of talk today about "The Reality of NBC" — a code phrase which meant, "We don't have a reality smash like 'American Idol,' but our shows get a classier audience anyway." But here's the real reality of NBC. The good news: it still leads the networks in the most important ratings category, viewers aged 18 to 49. The bad news: many of the shows that draw in those viewers — not just the aforementioned Thursday shows but "Law & Order" and "Frasier" — are, collectively, older than the Earth's core. And with "Friends" and "Frasier" most likely retiring at the end of next season, Zucker is under the gun to find new hits to replace his very reliable, very old ones.

Zucker acknowledged as much in a filmed skit, about his efforts to secure "Friends" for its 10th and last season, in which he imagined himself as the show's famous Ugly Naked Guy, dancing in a window nude, save for a candle strategically covering a sensitive area. And the reporters who cover wars think they have it rough.

NBC did appeal to the advertisers, though, with its time-honored, if a touch crass, pitch that it has the richest viewers of any broadcast network. It's true. If NBC were a neighborhood, you couldn't afford to live there. Its most platinum-plated drama, "The West Wing," has an average viewer household income of over $75,000 — $10,000 higher than the second-richest show, "Ed," also on NBC. (A fact that probably kept the incessantly quirky bowling-alley drama on the air despite its middling ratings — while other shows with more viewers but fewer SUV buyers got canceled.) Zucker hammered home the point, combining it with a warning against being seduced by unpredictable reality shows' ratings: "When you buy NBC, you're buying quality and stability." It was like attending a life insurance convention.

Of course, the real fun of upfronts is the uncertain quality and instability of the networks' new, untried shows. (At the presentations, networks only show clip trailers, so it's not really possible to "review" the shows' quality -- but fun to guess.) NBC submitted three new dramas and three sitcoms.

The dramas started with "Las Vegas," and sadly, no, it's not a remake of the Robert Urich classic (hence the "Las"). It is what looks to be a kind of glitzy, action-heavy soap opera for guys, set in what we're told is the glamorous world of casino security, which apparently involves more than keeping drunk computer salesmen from groping the cocktail waitresses. Starring James Caan, Nikki Cox and Cheryl Ladd, it comes from the writer of "The Fast and the Furious" (It had a writer! Who knew?) and is assured to be a hit, says Zucker, because "Our highest-reated 'Fear Factor' ever took place in Las Vegas."

There's also the hourlong "Miss Match," starring Alicia Silverstone, in whch the poor man's Reese Witherspoon plays a divorce lawyer who's also a budding Cupid. It's from "Sex and the City" creator Darren Star, which is promising, but while the premise sounds like it might hold out for 90 minutes' worth of a feature romantic comedy, we'll have to see if it can sustain a series. Finally, "The Lyon's Den," the long-awaited return to TV of Rob Lowe — after, what, three days? — is a legal thriller set in Washington, D.C. whose ultimate storyline, frankly, escaped me. It involved Lowe's being torn between doing legal-clinic work to help little people and running a sharky, high-profile firm, so NBC could say it's kind of like "The West Wing," but focusing on one man's struggle with the system. Except they did that last year, called it "Mister Sterling," and canceled it.

Speaking of "The West Wing," Zucker assured advertisers that the show would be better than ever despite its recent ratings slide and the loss of creator-writer Aaron Sorkin. Zucker also praised the show's season-ending, over-the-top plot twists — the vice president resigns! the president's daughter gets kidnapped! — which have lately made the show play like "24" with too much dialogue and not enough torture.

But back to the comedies. Those of you who have longed for Whoopi Goldberg to be liberated from the center square and star in a sitcom as a wisecracking hotel manager, suffice it to say your prayers have been answered. "Whoopi" is, to hear Zucker tell it, one of the "edgiest" new shows of the season, but there was little sign of that in the clips, save for the character of an Iranian handyman, which will apparently allow for a lot of wacky terrorist jokes. Meanwhile, "Happy Family" is not just a Chinese menu item anymore: it stars John Larroquette and Christine Baranski as empty-nester parents whose grown kids continue to give them anxiety. Three minutes after the clips played, I could remember little about it except the music. That "Da Da Da" song is catchy!

Then we had "Coupling," which has already begun to generate buzz as NBC's Next Great Comedy Hope, not a little of said buzz manufactured by NBC. Say this for it: it sure looks a lost like NBC's Last Great Comedy Hope. It's about six young singles in the big city, looking for love, who've had complicated sexual histories with each other. "Coupling" is actually a remake of a British series that's become a cult sensation, though, so it's not a shameless clone of "Friends" if you let the Brits clone it first! Another reason for "Coupling"'s buzz is that the British version is a very risque sex farce — although, except for a condom joke, the scenes shown of the Yank version weren't even as envelope-pushing as many "Friends" episodes. If nothing else, the buzz around the show will be the best thing ever to happen to BBC America, which reruns the British version.

In all, NBC's message was loud and clear. Those other networks' smash reality shows are passing fancies. What matters in the long run is our quality scripted dramas and comedies (even the ones that people aren't watching)... which made it all the more amusing when Zucker capped off his presentation with a pitch for "the most upscale reality show you can imagine." On "The Apprentice" — debuting in early 2004 from "Survivor" Producer Mark Burnett — 16 people compete to get a chance to get a job working for Donald Trump. Sixteen people, backstabbing, and climbing the corporate ladder: it's "Survivor" without all the confusing nature metaphors!

At NBC, it turns out, the reality is: just because you're number one on the strength of your "quality, reliable" scripted hits, it doesn't mean the viewers won't vote you off next season.

Tomorrow: The WB and ABC