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Parade of Prognosticators

We live in fast-paced, go-go times, when the emphasis on disseminating news and information is on doing it now now now.

Getting it fast, of course, doesn’t always mean getting it right. Just ask the folks at Newsweek or any number of other outlets guilty of recent journalistic transgressions.

In terms of television, the latest crush for instant analysis can be seen in the thirst for reaction to the major networks’ upfront presentations to advertisers. Even before the last shrimp cocktail was consumed or a single pilot screened in its entirety, media buyers and pundits began weighing in on what looked good, what didn’t, and who was destined to be up or down.

The media-research team at CSFB Equity Research was so eager to discuss ABC’s upfront that they rushed out an announcement regarding the network’s anticipated “26% increase in total upfront dollars, on an increase in inventory (85%) … and an increase in ratings guarantees.”

Given ABC’s performance in 2004-05, some kind of improvement hardly amounted to a bold prediction. Yet CSFB issued its projections before CBS, Fox and UPN had even made their presentations, which, one might think, would have some impact on how the Disney-owned network’s lineup promised to fare competitively. If CBS threw in the towel and just renamed itself CSI, or Fox went with 15 hours a week of American Idol, ABC’s gain would probably have to be downgraded.

Indeed, as even most network execs allow, the schedules are subject to revision, from shifting programs to capitalize on some perceived time slot opportunity to the inevitable self-immolation of shows during the summer. That happens with surprising regularity.

Nevertheless, media buyers and analysts are all too willing to begin immediately speculating about first cancellations or likely hits—a practice better suited to Ouija boards and office pools.

Then again, the demand for premature exclamations is hardly limited to the upfronts. As much as I love flashing my face on TV for the relatives, I turn down most interview requests because the producer wants me to comment upon something utterly fatuous.

One cable news program, for example, wanted to discuss the explosion of religious programming in prime time, tied to the launch of the NBC limited series Revelations and a pilot called The Book of Daniel, with Joan of Arcadia thrown in to create the obligatory Rule of Three.

My decision to pass didn’t stop the piece from proceeding with another pundit nearly as pretty, though Revelations and Joan have both subsequently gone away—and Daniel never even escaped the lion’s den. On the plus side, the incident prompted me to politely ask a certain booker to lose my phone number.

Fortunately, the media world is populated by an assortment of talking heads who will wax eloquent on the opening of a shopping mall if that is the ticket to airtime. The American Journalism Review recently exposed various political pundits that newspapers have placed on “Do Not Call” registries, but neglected to mention the superstars of media punditry. Topping that roster is Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who presides over the Center for the Study of Popular Television and has become so ubiquitous it isn’t uncommon to see him quoted three or four times daily.

The real tragedy, actually, is that there is no penalty for talking first and thinking later. In an overlooked instance of this, conservative firebrand Sean Hannity, on his radio show last month, began to rant about the need for harsher rules against sex offenders, after it was reported that two missing Georgia toddlers had turned up dead. Apparently, Hannity hadn’t read all the wire copy before unleashing his monologue, belatedly noting preliminary indications were that foul play wasn’t involved. Undaunted, he quickly segued to his next topic.

So while the term “rush to judgment” became a pejorative during the O.J. Simpson trial, the truth is that he who hesitates is lost—or at least unlikely to secure a berth on Hardball With Chris Matthews.

I can play that game. As for this year’s upfronts, I can predict with a high degree of confidence that almost all new programs will be in color and the majority of those that get on the air won’t survive until next Memorial Day. If that sounds like news to you, then I’m ready for my close-up.