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

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.

ABC

Like NBC, the Alphabet Net is helmed by a relative newcomer. Paul Lee’s inaugural season as entertainment president was marked by a handful of modest hits (Revenge, Scandal, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23, Suburgatory) and one all-out phenomenon (the Sunday night drama Once Upon a Time). But there were also a string of noble failures (Pan Am, The River), bubble shows (GCB, Last Man Standing) and outright stinkers (Charlie’s Angels, Man Up! and the execrable Work It).

The literal and figurative heart and soul of ABC is Modern Family, which forms the hot n’ gooey core of its Wednesday night comedy lineup. The third highest-rated scripted series on television, Modern Family averages 10.1 million viewers per night and a 4.1 in the demo.

ABC has already re-upped Modern Family and its Wednesday night neighbors The Middle, Suburgatory and Happy Endings, and a pick-up for Apt. 23 is increasingly likely. The fate of the one-hour Tuesday comedy block is less assured, however. Appearing at irregular intervals after a February hiatus, the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing closed out its freshman run with a respectable 2.2 in the demo. The three inhabitants of the lead-out slot—Man Up!, Work It, Cougar Town—have decamped, and the Reba McEntire comedy Malibu County could be slotted in as a safe pairing with Last Man. Both shows are likely to appeal to an older crowd; in its first season, Last Man posted a median age of 53 years.

Likely drama pickups include Nashville, 666 Park Ave. and the Shawn Ryan rogue-nuclear-submarine strip, The Last Resort. Revenge, Once Upon a Time, Grey’s Anatomy and Castle already have been renewed, and Scandal is expected to grab a lifeline as well.

The beginning of the week poses the greatest challenge to ABC, whose Dancing With the Stars franchise has begun to crumble. The current cycle of the competition series is averaging a 3.2 in the demo, marking a 29 percent decline from the year-ago 4.5. While a wildly different audience flocks to CBS’s Monday comedy slate, the head-to-head competition posed by NBC’s The Voice can’t be underestimated. Season-to-date, The Voice is averaging a whopping 14.1 million viewers and a 5.3 in the dollar demo.

If ABC doesn’t move the needle in May sweeps, it will finish fourth in the demo. Last season, the network dropped 8 percent, and a loss of another tenth of a ratings point will gnaw another 4 percent off the total. It’s time ABC hit the brakes.

ABC should land in the upper middle of the market, commanding CPM increases between 6 percent and 8 percent. If the network sees modest gains in dollar volume, it should close out the bazaar with around $2.55 billion in advance commitments.

FOX

With yet another ratings win in the bag, Fox has much to look forward to in 2012-13. It boasts two major ratings drivers in American Idol and The X Factor, launched a breakout live-action comedy hit (New Girl) and will return one freshman drama (Touch).

Because it takes big swings, Fox tends to whiff badly when it doesn’t make contact. Dino drama Terra Nova was a pricey bus, J.J. Abrams’ time-hopping thriller Alcatraz lost half of its premiere audience, and the Bones spinoff The Finder underwhelmed its way from a post-Idol slot to the blasted desolation of Friday night. Two animated comedies faltered (Napoleon Dynamite and Allen Gregory), the live-action I Hate My Teenage Daughter was in full-on burn-off mode by its fourth episode, and plans for Seth MacFarlane’s Flintstones reboot were quietly snuffed out after Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly had a lukewarm reaction to the script.

For all that, Fox heads into the upfront from a position of strength. Eight consecutive wins in the demo make it the must-buy for advertisers looking to beguile the 18-to-49 set, and even a graying Idol can move product. (Not for nothing does the show boast the highest unit costs in television, outside of prime time NFL games.) And while The X Factor missed its ratings guarantees, it still did well enough to claim the No. 8 spot among all broadcast TV series, wrapping season one with an average draw of 11.4 million viewers and a 3.8 in the demo.

With Touch returning, Fox need only fill the ragged hole left behind by the departure of House. Kevin Williamson’s The Following will do the honors, with an eye toward a midseason premiere. The Warner Bros. TV thriller stars Kevin Bacon as a former FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer (James Purefoy) who uses social media to manipulate a cult of like-minded evil-doers. Also earning a series order is the self-explanatory Mob Doctor, starring Jordana Spiro.

Fox on Monday will also introduce three single-camera comedies, a roster that includes Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project (aka It’s Messy), Ben & Kate (aka Ben Fox is My Manny) and The Goodwin Games. Fox snapped up Kaling’s script after NBC passed on it; fans of the pilot are saying that the show is likely to lead out of New Girl in the Tuesday 9:30 p.m. time slot.

If the price is right, Fox sales chief Toby Byrne could once again set the market. Fox should command strong CPM increases, writing premiums within a range of 8 percent to 9 percent. If dollar volume remains consistent with last year’s performance, Fox will walk away from the upfront table with $2.20 billion in hand. 

CBS

Unless CBS’s show reel includes a good 30 minutes devoted to gloating, its upfront presentation should be a rather fast-moving affair. Season-to-date, the Tiffany Network leads all comers with an average nightly draw of 11.8 million viewers while ranking second among the demo (3.2). Seven of the top 10 scripted series are broadcast on CBS, which also boasts the No. 1 comedy (The Big Bang Theory), the No. 1 new comedy (2 Broke Girls) and the No. 1 drama (NCIS).

Of the seven new series CBS launched in 2011-12, two (2 Broke Girls, Person of Interest) have been renewed. Given CBS’s mega-order in March, which locked up all but four hours of its prime time lineup, and an inevitable return trip for the unshakeable comedy Two and a Half Men, the network really doesn’t have to do much work under the hood.

There won’t be any leaks prior to CBS’s traditional Wednesday morning upfront breakfast, but the sheer strength of the prime time lineup suggests that only five or six new series will be introduced. A few dramas look especially promising—Ralph Lamb is a Nick Pileggi cop drama set in Las Vegas in the 1960s, while there’s been some decent buzz around Jerry Bruckheimer’s procedural, Trooper—and among the eligible comedies are an untitled Martin Lawrence pilot about a widowed father who joins the police academy and Super Fun Night, a manic multicamera sitcom executive produced by Conan O’Brien.

If CBS does try to make things interesting, it could try to blow out its Thursday night comedy roster, forming a bookend to the two-hour block that dominates Monday nights. In any event, next season is its to lose: Along with its regularly-scheduled embarrassment of riches, CBS will broadcast the Super Bowl in February.

Buyers warn that CBS could stall out if it tries to push too hard on pricing, and given Les Moonves’ early assertion that his team will command double-digit rate increases, this could prove to be an immovable object-irresistible force market. Certainly CBS can expect to lead on pricing and volume; should it average a 10 percent CPM hike and sell off slightly more than 80 percent of its inventory, the network could soak up more than $2.8 billion in upfront sales.