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Rites of Spring

Ah, spring. A time when networks set their fall prime time schedules and advertisers turn on the spigot from which billions of dollars flow into those networks' coffers. It's also the time when studio executives, producers, agents and development types pretend to understand the alchemical process that makes one show soar while another crashes and burns.

Of course, each upfront season has its own distinctive qualities, and this year looks to be about gutlessness. One thing I keep hearing is that network brass are listening to the audience feedback from pilot testing more than ever before. With budgets tighter, a producer's passion just won't cut it.

“Everybody will tell you, 'Oh, we go with our guts,'” says one senior network exec. “But don't believe them. In the end, they're listening much too closely to the research guys.”

So when you're screening pilots later this month and you find yourself scratching your head about how some abom­ination made it on the prime time grid, you'll know why.

And don't be surprised if a pilot with a marquee name gets picked up after scoring high with test audiences, just as recent vehicles for Whoopie Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres and Bette Midler did before they flamed out in the Nielsens.

Never mind that some of the most successful series of all time—Seinfeld and All in the Family, most famously—tested horribly and would never have made the schedule if research had been taken to heart.

The same play-it-safe ethos is to blame when you see creative- and ratings-challenged series inexplicably picked up for another season. Nothing says your development has left you wanting like keeping a lackluster veteran on the grid.

If that's not the case, chances are the network owns the series and wants to bank enough episodes to sell into syndication and squeeze out some backend cash. (Did someone say Crossing Jordan?)

This is the time of year when everyone's got a theory about what's going to be hot and what's not come fall. But when everyone starts lavishing praise on a pilot, you've got to wonder what's in it for them.

Think about the shows that got early pickup, such as Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Crash writer/director Paul Haggis' The Black Donnellys and the star-laden Kidnapped. All were picked up by NBC, which, of course, explains that it's all about quality and getting a jump on the new season.

Sure, Sorkin and Haggis are buzzworthy, but NBC's rivals suggest that the network's bull­ishness is thin bravado. With the 8% shrinkage of its target 18-49 audience this year, they say, NBC needs to make an early show of con­fidence about its new slate so as to avoid a replay of last year's up­front, when ad revenue was off $1.1 billion.

To a large degree, the networks will bluster on about quality programming this week—scripted dramas and comedies—because that's what advertisers want to hear. What you're unlikely to see touted—except, of course, for such blue-chip properties as American Idol and Survivor—are any reality shows.

“Amazingly, most advertisers still view most reality shows as slumming,” says one prominent agent. “This time of year what advertisers want to hear about is what's going to be the next hit drama or sitcom. Then, when most of that stuff tanks, midseason we roll out the next Deal or No Deal, and we save everybody's ass.”

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