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Boning Up on the Upfront: A Cheat Sheet for the 2012-13 Bazaar

An advance look at TV’s annual pitch to the ad world

NBC's 'Revolution' | Photo by: Nino Munoz/NBC)

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On the eve of the annual spectacle known as Upfront Week, broadcasters can take comfort in the knowledge that the four-day dog and pony show will lead to some $9.2 billion in advance advertising commitments. This despite the fact that 32 of the series that were so lovingly introduced a year ago have no hope of securing a spot on the fall schedule.

While it may be true that no other business tolerates TV’s failure rate—you wouldn’t fly with a carrier whose flights crashed 90 percent of the time—every network has its own working definition of failure. In October, CBS canceled the comedy How to Be a Gentleman after just two episodes, during which it averaged 8.16 million viewers and a 2.6 in the 18-49 demo. And while those numbers weren’t good enough for CBS, the truncated Gentleman still managed to outperform every single scripted series on NBC. 

What follows is a scouting report of sorts, a pre-upfront analysis of what the Big Four nets have up their sleeves and how they’re likely to fare in the marketplace. Because they’re always the first to present—the show starts Monday, May 14, at Radio City—we’ll get the ball rolling with NBC.

NBC

Bob Greenblatt’s first year at the tiller was less a rollercoaster ride than an ordeal on a ferris wheel that kept breaking down. At times—notably when it re-launched The Voice out of Super Bowl XLVI—NBC found itself on top of the world, but for the most part, the network found itself stuck near ground level. Four high-profile dramas flopped terribly (The Playboy Club, Prime Suspect, The Firm, Awake), and at four new comedies are not going to live to see September.

Even the renewals can be characterized as qualified successes. After premiering to a 3.8 in the demo on Feb. 6, Smash has seen more than half of its GRPs evaporate. Meanwhile, in keeping its Thursday night comedy lineup intact—30 Rock and Community were officially renewed for final flights of 13 episodes apiece, while Parks and Rec and The Office have been given full-season orders—NBC is championing quality over eyeballs. While the aging Dunder Mifflin showcase commands the network’s highest scripted-series ratings (2.4), Parks and Rec (1.7), 30 Rock (1.5) and Community (1.4) are decidedly niche offerings.

Other freshman renewals are also on shaky ratings ground. After averaging a 1.9 rating in the demo over the course of 22 episodes, Whitney was picked up for a second season. Also booked for the fall is Up All Night, which matched Whitney in the dollar demo.

Comedy will be well represented next season, as NBC has picked up seven new sitcoms. Among the more promising single-camera projects are: the Matthew Perry vehicle Go On, Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal and Animal Practice, starring Justin Kirk. Meanwhile, after greenlighting pilots from Roseanne Barr and Sarah Silverman, NBC appears to have passed on both projects.

On the drama front, NBC has ordered one of the most buzzed-about new series in the J.J. Abrams/Eric Kripke thriller Revolution. It has also set aside space for three Universal Television dramas (Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire, the nighttime soap opera Infamous and Do No Harm, a gloss on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

While NBC has pulled itself out of last place, this is a largely symbolic victory. Season-to-date, the network holds a slim 2.5 to 2.4 lead over ABC in the 18-49 demo, a result padded by its Super Bowl ratings. Strip out the big game and ABC is actually in the lead (2.4 vs. 2.3).

Still, NBC can look back on the season with some satisfaction. If nothing else, it appears to have stopped the bleeding. Per Nielsen, NBC finished last in the demo in 2010-11, plummeting 14 percent to a 2.3 rating.

Analysts believe that NBC will once again finish on the low end of the pricing spectrum, notching CPM increases between 5 percent and 7 percent. In what is likely to be a flat market, the Peacock stands to book some $1.75 billion in upfront orders.

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