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At Upfronts, a Blur of Hype, Stats and Hope

Emphasize the positive, bury the negative, or at least make it fuzzy enough that it's not glaringly obvious. While the object of broadcast-network upfronts is to get advertisers to give some of the $8 billion or more of their spending to your network, the method is to make buyers believe the hype and forget the disasters that annually make up about 80% of the schedule.

It was like that again last week, when the major networks put their best face (and presumably, their best new programming) forward in the annual rite of salesmanship, where, as they say at the beginning of the baseball season, anything can happen.

Sometimes, though, it was hard to put a happy spin on anything. At ABC, most troubled of all if you don't count UPN (and not many have so far), there was, instead a kind of cheery defensiveness. "I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about the numbers," said Mike Shaw, president of sales and marketing for that still-struggling network, as he welcomed the crowd to Radio City Music Hall.

In case anyone missed ABC's predicament, Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment, reminded the crowd that, "starting last season, ABC began a massive rebuilding process. Our main objective was to reverse a multi-year ratings decline during which we had effectively lost the foundation of our schedule."

ABC's late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel didn't pretend Disney's network was turning any corner. "We're not No. 1, " he said, "and let's be honest, we're probably never going to be No. 1." It was such a bluntly honest appraisal he got a huge laugh. Nothing much the audience saw clips of tended to contradict his appraisal.

The pariah at every network is reality programming, about which nearly every network is in denial. Both CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves, and The WB President and COO Jed Petrick accused other networks of "the old bait-and-switch," (both used the same term), suggesting that competitors sell advertisers scripted programs that are preempted for cheap reality shows the sponsors never wanted. Kimmel was more to the point, although ABC stands among the accused: "As you may notice, we no longer call them reality shows around here. ... From now on, they'll simply be referred to as 'shit.'"

Selective reality

On a conference call with investors last week, Peter Chernin, chairman and COO of Fox parent News Corp., took a different view about the low-rent reputation that reality has acquired. "I do think, to be fair, in my opinion, one of the misconceptions in the broadcast business is that these reality shows are so cheap. These reality shows have gotten pretty expensive. They are high quality productions shot on location, etc., and they have no repeat value. So there's not a huge cost differential between the higher-quality reality shows and scripted shows."

It's clear that networks may have dissed reality, but, in reality, everybody is still slinging higher-quality versions of it.

CBS's venerable Survivor, it was announced, will have an "all-star" installment featuring contestants from previous editions. (Yes, including Rudy.) And ABC will broadcast four hours leading up to Bachelorette star Trista Rehn's marriage to her TV catch, Ryan Sutter.

Over at NBC, Donald Trump will "star" as himself, allowing a bunch of would-be executives to land a full-time job with him if they succeed in a series of tests, in The Apprentice (from Survivor producer Mark Burnett). Fox will keep pumping out American Idol.

Yet really, executives said, advertisers have spoken, and they don't want reality. Not much anyway.

At upfronts, separating fact from wishful thinking is futile, as is remembering (or believing) which network is No, 1 in some demographic. Indeed, at NBC and CBS, demographics were so much a part of the presentations that both networks had songs about themselves touting their respective hotness.

The cast of NBC's Will & Grace
performed a medley of pop hits referring to NBC Chairman Bob Wright and NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker as "the two bald wizards that advertisers love"(to the tune of The Who's "Pinball Wizard"). At CBS, the cast of Broadway hit Chicago, sang to the tune of "All That Jazz": "Come on, babe/It's time to pay upfront/We want your clients' cash/If we may be blunt/You got to buy today/Or else you'll really pay/For all those ads."

At CBS, the network touted its dominance in total viewers (it is the only network that seems to take that stat seriously) but Moonves also noted that, in the 18-49 and 25-49 demographics, the network had narrowed the gap between itself and NBC to razor-thin margins: "The race is now closer than ever." For example, he said, the 25-54 ratings gap between CBS and dominant NBC had shrunk from 1.3 rating points to 0.4, or 504,000 persons. "That's Toledo!" he exclaimed.

Coupling clicks

In fact, CBS and Fox each think NBC is ready to be toppled. At the Fox upfront, Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow said, "For the first time in this network's history, Fox is gunning for No. 1." He pointed out, as did Moonves at CBS, that NBC's younger demos are eroding.

Moonves, who likes to tweak Zucker, belittled NBC's schedule. "All I know is that they have Whoopi Goldberg, John Laroquette, Christine Baranski, Ryan O'Neal and Jimmy Caan. That sounds like a CBS schedule to me Those are our
actors. Where's the sizzle? I guess they are all on Coupling, huh?"

Despite all the talk about NBC's wobbliness, it's still the network to beat and overall still has television's best and most upscale shows. As Moonves said, NBC's new Coupling, advertised as a sexy version of Friends, looks just like that, with lots of talk about condoms and breasts, and a good bit of humor that works.

"It's everything you'd expect of us on Thursdays," Zucker said, which means it's either another show that will sink at 9:30 or one that will become the replacement for Friends
after next season. (Bet the latter.)

At the upfront presentation, NBC showed a tape showing Zucker agonizing over what to do about the end of Friends. He ends up at a clinic that houses a self-help group called "Network Presidents Who Lost Their #1 Comedy" and hears a sorrowful Warren Littlefield, ex-NBC Entertainment president, lament how his life turned to misery when he couldn't persuade Jerry Seinfeld to sign up for another season.

No big buyer buzz

This was a fairly buzzless upfront, although, clearly, the networks had their own favorites.

ABC is plugging I'm With Her, about a schoolteacher who begins dating a beautiful actress, slated for Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET. Network entertainment chief Susan Lyne says it is the most successfully tested sitcom since the network began keeping records of its audience research of pilots.

Fox seemed to have several shows that are out of the ordinary mold. The O.C.
is a Beverly Hills 90210-like drama set in Orange County, but Fox seems highest on Skin, a drama from Jerry Bruckheimer, about a boy whose D.A. father is investigating his girl's friend porn-king dad.

At CBS, on Friday at 8 p.m., new drama Joan of Arcadia is weird enough that Moonves couldn't really adequately explain it. Teenage Joan "sees" God, but, as Moonves said, "this is not Touched by an Angel."

And young women at The WB's upfront seemed to swoon watching a clip from Tarzan and Jane (the swinger has moved to New York). It stars newcomer Travis Fimmel, who is a lot sexier than his name.