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The Pre-Upfront Buzz Machine

Hollywood's genius for mixing fact and fiction is rarely more apparent than it is in the run-up to the annual upfront presentations. And with broadcast networks set to disclose their fall schedules next week, the great pre-upfront buzz machine has once again kicked into high gear.

As ever, the tongues of agents and managers are wagging furiously about pilot prospects. The noise will assuredly grow in intensity this week, culminating this weekend with the circulation of phony schedules in advance of the first announcements.

This year, favorable buzz has been building around several pilots, including those for Fox hospital drama Nurses (working title) and CBS' Babylon Fields, about zombies, and the Hugh Jackman-produced Viva Laughlin, based on British series Viva Blackpool.

Also enjoying positive chatter are NBC dramas Lipstick Jungle, Fort Pit and Journeyman; ABC dramas Dirty Sexy Money, Pushing Daisies and Suspects; and The CW's Gossip Girl, Reaper and Wild at Heart.

Conversely, some are calling Fox's police drama New Amsterdam “slow,” NBC's geek-turned-hero drama Chuck “so-so” and that network's remake of TheBionic Woman plain “bad.” At CBS, Demons, about a demon-fighting ex-priest, is said to be in trouble.

Of course, the wisdom of the chattering classes is dubious, given their picks in anticipation of last year's upfronts. Back then, along with ABC's Ugly Betty, several NBC pilots—notably Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Kidnapped and Heroes—headed into the upfronts with strong momentum.

The industry grapevine turned out to be right about Betty and Heroes, but it sorely missed the mark on the abruptly canceled Kidnapped and the moribund Studio 60, which appeared to have all the right ingredients for success, given its creative pedigree and stellar ensemble cast.

Although there may be some nuggets of truth in the talk of which pilots look good (or bad) during shooting, network executives insist that most pre-upfront hype is bunk.

“A lot of propaganda starts to come from outside and inside the networks,” says Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman. “Individuals champion certain pilots. There is a lot of misinformation floating around. I tend to ignore it all, personally.”

Vince Manze, NBC's recently installed head of scheduling, concurs. Although the rumors might make interesting reading, he says, “I don't remember anyone ever saying, 'This is a piece of crap; let's put it on because it had that early buzz.'”

Another reason to suspect such early assessments is that none of the pilots had been screened widely when buzz about them began to surface a few weeks back. In fact, some hadn't even been completed.

Network executives also look askance at studios' repeated assurances about how well their pilots tested, since quality is only one consideration in the series-selection process. Sales, talent, scheduling, marketing and business-affairs issues also come into play.

“It kind of comes down to who they want to be in business with and where they can put something,” says Carolyn Finger, VP/partner at research consultant TV Tracker. “They may not love a pilot but may love a project. There is a whole set of criteria that they must look at.”

For bottom-line–oriented networks, for example, the potential for generating ancillary revenue in international, digital or DVD markets may be enough to outweigh a flawed pilot, which can be reshot over the summer.

Before network executives sit down for the final scheduling meetings, they weigh the opinions of low- and mid-level executives who were shut out of the development process until the screenings began a few weeks ago. Until then, only a handful of senior-level executives get to see dailies from more than 50 drama and comedy pilots in the works.

The networks take input from the screenings seriously. At Fox, for instance, News Corp. President/COO Peter Chernin and, sometimes, his boss, Rupert Murdoch, appear at meetings in which everyone from coordinators to VPs share their thoughts about pilots.

But network executives insist the gossip means nothing to them. One admits to leaking some juicy rumors over the years to throw the competition off: “It's just a big, freaking game.”

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