NBC And Fox Maximize The Value Of Traditional Upfront Events

Last Sunday, as I was thinking about the week to come, I found myself wondering if there was still any point to traditional broadcast upfront presentations. I felt this way because of the unprecedented amount of information about the networks' new series and scheduling plans that had gushed forth online last week, some of it put into play by the networks themselves, the rest by involved parties interested in stirring the pot.

The crazy powerful Deadline was especially robust in its early spillage of new season information, all of which was feverishly repurposed by every other reporter and blogger who covers television, lest he or she be accused not of keeping up with breaking news.

Even actors joined the advance info-flow. I believe Ashton Kutcher scooped Deadline and everyone else when he announced via Twitter that he would in effect replace Charlie Sheen next season in CBS' "Two and a Half Men." Once upon a time, a bombshell announcement like that would have been kept under wraps until CBS' actual presentation at Carnegie Hall.

By last Friday afternoon I had a handle on the high points of the NBC, Fox and ABC upfront announcements, plus some information about what CBS and The CW were planning for next season. (More information about fall plans for those two networks was revealed on Monday and Tuesday, long before their respective presentations on Wednesday and Thursday.) As a result, for the first time in 20 years of attending upfronts, I began to think it might not be necessary for anyone to commit all that time and effort to attending the events to come, or for the networks to spend all that time and money putting them on.

Consider: Absent traditional events, and following all those online breaks, the remaining details of each networks' plans could be formally released via digital media, along with clips from all the new shows. (As it is, embeddable clips from new shows sprout like crabgrass all over the Internet immediately after each network's event, and sometimes before.)

It would all be very modern and professional and efficient - and utterly devoid of essential emotional connections, as I realized Monday morning, about 30 seconds into NBC's event in the third-floor ballroom at the Hilton Hotel, when Seth Meyers of "Saturday Night Live" began delivering television "news" behind his familiar Weekend Update desk. As the day progressed, I was repeatedly reminded that even with all that advance online information, there were still compelling reasons for the networks to continue with traditional upfront week presentations.

The struggling NBC and the front-running Fox don't have much in common these days, except for a sudden surge in talent competition programming. But they both have a rich tradition of establishing and maintaining overall environments, something they both make exceedingly clear at their upfront events. For example, regardless of the executives in charge, or changes in corporate ownership, NBC's basic engagement structure stays firmly in place. That includes its perpetually popular late-night talk and comedy shows, the legendary pop culture institution "Saturday Night Live," the smartest and most contemporary news organization among the broadcasters, the unfailingly current "Today" show and a deluxe sports division that includes the Olympics. Significantly, NBC always incorporates these enduring elements of its environment into its upfront events.

I wasn't particularly impressed this week by the descriptions or clips of NBC's new shows -- except for its tantalizing midseason drama with music "Smash," about the making of a Broadway musical. But NBC's presentation (powered not only by Seth Meyers, but by a memorable appearance by Donald Trump and musical performances by Jimmy Fallon and his "Late Night" house band The Roots, along with two judges from "The Voice," Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green), reminded me that I am impressed by how sturdy and supportive and exciting NBC can be, when it gets its act together.

Of course, when it comes to upfront events, no other broadcaster serves up as much excitement or so vibrantly maximizes its environment as Fox, even without benefit of so many outstanding achievements beyond prime time. This week's presentation was no exception, with a fun opening performance by "Glee" choral group The Warblers, the network's annual parade of primet-ime stars, the return of Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul to Fox's upfront stage (accompanied for a few nostalgic moments by their former "American Idol" co-star Randy Jackson) on behalf of "The X-Factor," and an amazing performance at the end by seven of this year's "American Idol" finalists and several dancers from previous seasons of "So You Think You Can Dance."

It's one thing for a network to spin a lot of numbers and simply tell an audience how wonderful it is. It's another thing entirely for a network to demonstrate its power as an all-inclusive, influential environment for advertisers and viewers alike, reminding them in as exciting a manner as possible what it is they can do. That's the value of traditional upfront presentations, especially when they are thoughtfully produced.

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