Upfronts 2009: Networks Get Ready to Sing for Their Supper

As the broadcast networks head into the annual New York upfront week to generate early buzz for new programming and peddle next season's wares to advertisers, they face several existential challenges, not the least of which is a steep economic downturn. But the mantra from executives at the broadcast networks this week will be that broadcast still delivers the biggest shows and the biggest audiences.

Sound familiar? It should. Because the broadcast networks have been repeating the same pitch since they were first declared irrelevant seemingly many years ago.

“Every year, it's something,” says Brad Adgate, director of research for media buying firm Horizon. “It's broadcast is losing viewers to cable, or consumers have more screens to look at than ever before, or consumers can control their ad exposure with DVRs. Last year it was the writers' strike. And this year it's the economy.”

But this year brought ratings challenges for ABC, Fox, NBC and The CW. Only CBS has grown its audience season to season (at presstime, by 12% in total viewers and 3% in the 18-49 demographic).

And with only one show (CBS's The Mentalist) breaking out on any network this past season, the pressure is on for the networks to demonstrate they still deserve the “Big Tent” moniker—and the ad dollars that come with it.


Fourth-Quarter Comeback

May 18, 4 p.m., New York City Center

Like many of network television's top performers, Fox's American Idol is showing its age a little more this season. Still the most-watched program on television, at presstime Idol had also experienced an 11% drop in the demo compared to last year. And, of course, there is the annual question of whether Simon Cowell will stick around. But it goes without saying that any other network would be happy to have Idol, declining or not.

And Fox this season has managed to launch two new dramas, Fringe and Lie to Me; the network hopes both of them will find more viewers next season. Family Guy spinoff Cleveland and Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy's Glee, which gets a preview on May 19 after Idol, are among shows set for fall. With fewer MLB games to schedule around, the network has made progress in the fall, a heretofore dormant season before the return of Idol and 24 in January.

“Our number-one goal over the last two seasons has been to be more competitive in the fourth quarter,” says Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic programming and planning. “We've done that. We're not going to overload our schedule with a lot of new programming in the fall.”


Back to Basics

No upfront (May 19 Comedy Showcase)

NBC unveiled two new comedies and four new dramas at its “infront” presentation on May 4 in New York. The new shows, including the Joel McHale comedy Community and medical dramas Trauma and Mercy, earned high praise from advertisers and the media as the fourth-place network's best development slate in years. Interestingly, where last year NBC Universal co-chair Ben Silverman spent much time and energy talking up branded integration schemes woven into now-defunct shows including Kings and My Own Worst Enemy, this year his presentation was a back-to-basics focus on the shows, not the marketing.


Man Hunt

May 19, 3 p.m., ABC Headquarters

ABC, which has slipped to third in the demo this season with the aging of hits including Lost and Desperate Housewives, is looking to reclaim the market advantage it has built with those still-reliable performers as well as Grey's Anatomy (the top-rated scripted series on television) and perennial unscripted hit Dancing With the Stars. The network announced early pickups for the comedy Modern Family and drama Flash Forward, which ABC has promoted during Lost; executives hope Flash Forward will fill the void when Lost departs after next season. Flash Forward, like Lost, is likely to skew male, a segment that ABC has had some challenges reaching.

“We are developing shows to hopefully bring more men in because that is how we'll grow our audience,” says Jeff Bader, executive VP at ABC Entertainment. But he was quick to note that ABC's female viewers have given the network a preponderance of successful series.

“We have six of the top 10 shows with women, and women drive television viewing,” he says. “We're not going to do anything to disrupt that. We'd like to grow above and beyond that. Modern Family is a family comedy. We're hoping it's a family comedy like Roseanne that actually does bring in men with women. Shows like Flash Forward are obviously going to be much more male, like Lost.”

There are many drama contenders that tap into ABC's female-skewing demographic, including a series adaptation of The Witches of Eastwick and the Shonda Rhimes-produced Inside the Box, with Kim Raver as an aggressive Washington TV producer. A police procedural is also a priority, however, and the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced The Forgotten could fill that bill.

“What we're looking for are hit shows,” Bader says. “Whoever drives the viewership of those shows, if it's men and women, fantastic. If it's women, that's fine, too.”


Stick With What Works

May 20, 4 p.m., Carnegie Hall

CBS enters the upfront from a position of strength, and network executives will not let earned bragging rights go to waste.

With one of the few new hits of last season in The Mentalist, a show very much in keeping with CBS' accessible crime procedural formula, the network will stick to its knitting next season. Several veteran shows are on the bubble, including Old Christine, Cold Case, Without a Trace and The Unit. (The network last week reached an agreement to bring back Ghost Whisperer.)

But potential replacements are in keeping with CBS' brand of comfort-food television. These include the NCIS spinoff starring LL Cool J (which aired in a two-part backdoor pilot on April 28 and May 5); a legal drama starring Julianna Margulies and another featuring Melissa George and Jason Clark; and comedy Accidentally on Purpose, starring Jenna Elfman as a film critic confronting an unplanned pregnancy after a one-night stand with a younger man.

The CW:

Positive Gossip, Finally?

May 21, 11 a.m., WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden

The CW will abandon Sunday nights, giving the time back to the affiliates to program. (See related story, "The CW Getting Out of Sunday Business") But it seems that for the first fall in a while, the main talk about the network is not whether or not it will survive the season.

Gossip Girl is a legitimate franchise, and 90210 brought buzz, if not big ratings. Using America's Next Top Model, its No. 1 show, as a springboard, The CW zeroed in on 18-34-year-old women last season. The trend continues with this season's contenders: Gossip Girl spinoff Lily, which got a back-end preview May 11 during an episode of Gossip Girl; a Melrose Place update; Twilight-esque The Vampire Diaries; a male-model drama; and a D.C.-set drama about young Hill staffers.

With the impending cancellation of Everybody Hates Chris and Reaper, the network is also abandoning comedy. The Game is said to still be a contender for renewal, but it is being re-pitched as an hour-long dramedy.