Once More Into The Jaws Of The TV Dinosaur Known As Upfrontasaurus
Originally published on Wed May 7, 2014 8:19 am
Next week, the broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and the CW — will make their upfront presentations in New York. (There are some scattered cable ones too, like ESPN and TNT/TBS.) This is where they present their new shows, in the form of clips and sizzle reels, to advertisers. From a business perspective, it's really important in the same way that any sales pitch is really important: they sell ads, they make money, and when they get the advertising people excited, a show becomes a presumed frontrunner before it even premieres. (This happened a couple of years ago with 2 Broke Girls.)
But it's become the collective moment in which we seem to decide we are looking ahead to next season, and while that's perfectly fine, I beg you: do not take this week too much to heart.
There are people who are gangbusters at writing up the business side of all this, who understand scheduling and executive shuffles and love to dive into who's making money and who's not and why, who have an encyclopedic knowledge of producers and players. (My favorites are Joe Adalian at Vulture and Lacey Rose and Lesley Goldberg at The Hollywood Reporter.) They're a lot of fun to pay attention to about now, because they're dealing with this as the Hollywood inside baseball that it is.
For critics, though, there's a sort of imperative to treat this as the official Preview Of What We'll All Be Talking About For The Next Six Months, and that's unnecessary for a few reasons.
First of all, the fact that this is a broadcast-centric event means that while it does provide a list of some of what will be on offer, it doesn't do so with any particular thoroughness. What five networks do in September has less and less of a stranglehold on the entire idea of television, both because things premiere all year and because everybody from The Weather Channel to Netflix to XBox is making shows. It's not at all uncommon for the highest viewership numbers on a particular night to be a motley mix of network shows and cable shows, and so few people are pulling in television over the air at this point that for your average person with at least basic cable, it's fair to ask who really cares about this particular constellation of folks?
Furthermore, it's so early in the creative development of all these projects that nobody really knows what they might turn into. What the networks are going to show during their official presentations aren't even pilots — they're just sizzle reels, which is a more finger-guns-shooting way of saying "trailers," which is in turn a more cinematic way to say "long commercials." You cannot tell literally anything from the vast majority of sizzle reels, except that in some cases, you can tell that comedies are thus far terrible and not funny. It's like trying to judge a house by the doorknob; you can try to extrapolate, but it's an awful lot of effort for minimal reward.
And finally, so much of this stuff is going to disappear so quickly that the minutes you spend even developing the pre-awareness of its existence that networks are trying to drum into you beginning right now is going to be largely wasted. There will be countless critics — including me! — making recommendations later about what to try and what not to try, but at this point ... well, let's put it this way: two years ago right now, Fox was very into The Mindy Project, but also The Mob Doctor and Ben And Kate. (These were television shows.) Last year at this time, We Are Men was a going concern. Not even! It was a concern yet to come. Remember Back In The Game? Welcome To The Family? Betrayal? Lucky 7? Blair Underwood in a remake of Ironside? There are, in fact, things that were announced last year at upfronts, were previewed by critics, have yet to air, and have already been canceled.
I'm not saying don't check out the rundowns from critics you like, or don't let buzz seep into your soul; there are times when it turns out to be right, and heaven knows that curating for yourself is enough work at this point that you need all the help you can get. We'll talk about upfronts here, too — it's what we do.
Just don't get too attached to anything. Don't get emotionally invested. This is very much a production of Ye Olde Television Model, which — don't get me wrong — remains the way most people watch much of their television, but which is only a teeny piece of the picture of the conversations that will be going on six months from now.