Some Thoughts on the Upfronts

May 26, 2010
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The arrival of a Variety story titled “Upfront Market Returns to Glory” left me with a dispirited sigh. Really? It is not that I harbor ill will toward the television industry—far from it. Rather, I’d hoped that some of the desperation of recent years might be enough to create the momentum needed for some real change. This remains a seriously strange way to allocate billions of dollars (for more, see). Incremental adjustments continue, but I had thought the crisis mode of the last few years may have been enough to really redefine the dominant buying practice. Perhaps not.

What else can be said of the upfronts? At this time of year, forecasts are a dime a dozen—whether about the likely success of programs or about how much different networks are likely to get in advertising commitments. In regard to the prognostications, I’ll snarkily note that there never seems to be much reporting on who was right or wrong, so I’ll pass on offering one more armchair programming/buying perspective: But a couple more observations

Something Different: As The New York Times noted in “Cable Takes a Front-Row Seat at Upfront Week,” in years past, cable channels made their programming announcements in March and April and steered clear of Manhattan in May, letting it be a broadcast show. But this year cable came to the big dance with programming announcements and events by many of the major channels. In the big picture, I’m not sure how much this matters—just further evidence of the industrial blurring of a distinction that has grown ever more negligible in terms of the viewing experience of many. While perhaps more notable this year with the Comcast buyout of NBC, the selling lines within conglomerates have been blurry for awhile now. Even further blurriness is added by the selling of advertising in digital content.

Read with Caution: All of this blurriness is about more than how buyers may feel after a network’s cocktail reception. The genre of industry article that follows the stream of prognostications is the genre that hypes the size of the deals that get made once the buying begins. Read these with caution. It only gets more and more difficult each year to decipher what is actually going on relative to other years. Rarely do articles make clear distinctions about what kind of add-ons are part of deals—sure, a network may be up 3% over last year, but did they have to sell/throw in some online, product placement, or cable to get there? Handicapping the fall schedules is a fun game, one I’m far better at than fantasy football, but so little of what is written about the upfronts really means anything substantial (other than industry posturing—which admittedly, has a role, but isn’t industry journalism’s finest contribution).

An Upfront Aside: As a television viewer I’ve been struggling to figure out why I have been wholly uninterested in the upfronts this year when in years past I would pour over the new grids with the glee of a child on Christmas morning. First, I realized the schedule has long ceased to matter to me. It all goes in the DVR (thanks to multiple tuners) and comes out whenever I decide. Given I’m no longer among a handful of early adopters and we’re in an era of Live+ measurement, analyzing the schedule no longer holds hidden meaning about what might succeed or fail because of its schedule position. Second, as a drama maven and reality avoider (at least in terms of my viewing preferences), I’m stunned by the minimal role broadcast programming plays in my life—(do I still even watch anything on CBS?). Finally, with all the constant reporting that has become part of the coverage of TV, from the aggregation at to constant updating of even only rumored developments by the trades online and newcomers like Deadline Hollywood, I’m fully appraised of the status of all shows and the factors likely to contribute to their return or passing.


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4 Responses to “ Some Thoughts on the Upfronts ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on May 26, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    “in years past I would pour over the new grids with the glee of a child on Christmas morning”

    I admit to still doing so. Like you, a DVR largely runs my television viewing now, but a few things still make that schedule important:
    1. My DVR can only record two things at once, meaning that some shows are damned from the get-go because they’re up against TWO shows I like.
    2. Enough people don’t have DVRs to make a show’s place in the schedule relevant still, even if only to show what a network thinks its chances are (when the show’s on Friday night, for instance, I take that as a fairly bad sign of its institutional support.
    3. They’re still just beautiful to look at. This is perhaps just evidence of my love of tidyness, but schedules visually suggest an order and planning that otherwise seems lacking from television 🙂

    • Amanda Lotz on May 26, 2010 at 2:40 PM

      Good point about institutional support, Jonathan. I think that remains something to watch. My sense is that “Thursday” night also doesn’t mean what it used to.
      And the tuner thing (and schedule) is especially interesting with cable. I really appreciate the cable tendency of replaying at a later hour and later in the week as a solution to schedule issue.

  2. Jeffrey Jones on May 26, 2010 at 8:12 PM

    Jonathan’s points not withstanding (for I agree), I do read in your comments, though, something that reminds me of Washington/politics–kind of a “this is the way the game is played” logic that makes sense to the players, but not always to the reality of those outside the system or even in relation to contemporary reality. People often talk about the mass delusions that drive Hollywood/cultural industries and Washington/politics as being similar. This might be a case in point.

    • Amanda Lotz on May 27, 2010 at 10:24 AM

      My sense when I was researching this was that those engaged in the processes also felt they were outdated or didn’t serve many well but that changing the system was just too massive or that it was impossible to get everyone on the same page to make changes.