Jack Myers' Think Tank: Upfront Presentations -- Steak But No Sizzle

Question of the Week: Should the broadcast network upfront presentations offer more sizzling entertainment qualities to go along with the hard programming facts?

Almost anyone interested in prime-time television has been hit over the head this week with daily coverage of the networks' plans for the fall season. Industry insiders who attended the annual network upfront events noted a few prominent themes: very few new sitcoms; procedural crime shows are on their way out; and the events themselves were notable for being shorter than ever and lacking any "show biz glitz" and entertainment power. (The exceptions were Univision and The CW. Read below for details.)

The networks deserve thanks and credit for underwriting and hosting these events, but it seemed this year like a huge expense for little return. Network executives who plan the events all tell the same story: in their conversations with agency and advertiser executives, they were told "there's no need for show business" at the upfront presentations. They're about business and imparting information, the networks were advised. Media buyers and marketers counseled networks to limit the number of stars who trot onto stage to deliver typically irrelevant comments about their new shows. They also advised networks to spend as little time as possible on returning shows since buyers are already familiar with them. Finally, they pointed out, "we don't need to be entertained." The networks delivered on these requests, and most client and agency executives were grateful the networks "respected their time."



The end result, though, was that the network television industry's most important week of the year -- when an incredible depth and range of quality entertainment is showcased to the ad, financial and press communities -- was reduced to a montage of mass meetings that struggled to hold attendees' attention. Most upfront events would have been equally effective via remote video conferencing, in small personal meetings or via a DVD. Programs and program schedules all blended into an amalgam of irrelevancy. Sure, experienced media agency and advertiser executives have "been there, done that" when it comes to the upfronts, but isn't there still a place for show biz in the television business?

NBC trooped the cast of "Heroes" onto the Radio City Music Hall stage but otherwise had no star power and no entertainment during its upfront presentation, condensing it to a compact 90-minutes.

ABC, ironically, transported the Rockettes to Lincoln Center for a chorus line tribute to "Ugly Betty," and closed the event with a rousing marching band, also all accomplished in a short one hour and 40 minutes.

CBS held to a traditional night-by-night format and scheduling explanations appreciated by media buyers, delivered in a compact 85 minutes. But CBS also opted out of incorporating any uplifting entertainment value, and limited cast introductions to a few new series, most prominently the new drama "Cane," starring Jimmy Smits. CBS was clever in its integration of new technologies, with sales exec Jo Ann Ross appearing only as her Second Life avatar and new digital head Quincy Smith delivering a 20-minute talk in less than five minutes.

Fox cleverly opened and closed the show with Jack Bauer, via video, commanding President Peter Liguori to keep the show to one hour, responding to vitriolic complaints after last year's lengthy presentation in a hot downtown armory. This year's Fox event was tightly managed; stars from most series did a quick walk-on, and the after-party at Wollman Rink was the most comfortable.

Univision, with a dominant presence in the Hispanic/Latino community, was less concerned about showing program clips, and instead focused on the emotional connections audiences have with the network, bringing 1,000 cheering young people to hear pop group RBD along with the 12-member Team Univision, a fan focus group recruited through an online contest who sat on stage throughout the event, interacting with a comedic host and network stars. Univision shared user-generated "fan videos," presented Ford, Allstate and Subway with awards for the most emotionally connected commercials as voted by viewers, and presented hard-selling stats validating the emotional connection of its audience with both the network and advertisers. Univision set the standard this year for delivering relevant insights, differentiated positioning, a cavalcade of stars, and entertainers who reflected the network's brand message. Univision's upfront was as much a celebration of Latin culture and audience loyalty as a programming presentation. A mini-concert by Marc Anthony, a performance by RBD, plus an appearance by Jennifer Lopez, were upfront week highlights, even for jaded industry veterans. The Univision presentation had audience members on their feet cheering.

CW Network opened with a short performance by the Pussycat Dolls and featured Tyra Banks and American's Next Top Models, generating enthusiasm and positive excitement for the network.

Here's the problem and the challenge networks face in planning next year's events. Network execs listened to a couple dozen senior hard-nosed industry veterans who want "just the facts." The facts can be delivered easily to these executives in personal meetings, e-mails, video conferences and DVDs. Upfront week has historically been a celebration of network television. After a week of exhausting parties and presentations, buyers, clients and planners would convene to set strategy, still on a network-fed "high" of emotional enthusiasm. In the past few years, the networks made the mistake of overloading presentations with irrelevant entertainment value and parades of stars, resulting in this year's dearth of entertainment and star power.

Networks need to again rethink how they approach the upfront, what audiences they are serving, and what their ultimate goals are. Is there even a need for these events and parties, or have they become gratuitous and largely irrelevant? Should networks invest hundreds of thousands more in entertainment on top of the million dollars plus they already each invest? Credit them for their efforts and for their effort to be responsive to the stated needs of ad industry leaders. But is there continued reason to invite thousands to major events that fail to enliven, enthuse, define unique brands, entertain or otherwise excite audiences about each network individually or network television in general? What would you do next year?

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