This Is What We Saw at the TV Upfronts This Year

And here's what it looked like

In trying to gauge the health of the TV ad sales market, one can opt to discard macroeconomic data on the GDP and spreadsheets on scatter rates. In fact, look no further than the nearest hors d’oeuvres tray. If at any point during an upfront party a waiter bearing a silver tray offers you a jumbo shrimp cocktail, things are looking up. When the networks aren’t feeling so flush, you’ll be lucky to round up a plate of chilled Sea-Monkeys slathered in ketchup. Austerity matters were such that during the recession-throttled 2009-10 upfront, even the most resourceful junior buyer soon learned that the closest thing to a free meal was the garnish on a watered-down drink.

If that’s an (admittedly) absurd methodology, it’s probably not much goofier than trying to pass judgment on the fall prime-time schedule based on having watched a bunch of three-minute promo reels from the nosebleed seats at New York’s Carnegie Hall or Radio City. And yet this is what media buyers and clients are asked to do every May; the likelihood is high that many long-term investments will be made based on fleeting first impressions.

Sure, it’s a lot easier to identify the pineapple Life Savers, those shows that are met with a mix of incredulity and nervous laughter when they’re trotted out during the dog and pony shows. (Think Work It, or Animal Practice.) Picking a winner is another matter altogether. Whereas only a handful of new series really seemed to distinguish themselves during last year’s upfront, this year at least a dozen shows appear strong enough to help marketers reach their target demos.

Fox, ABC and The CW all bet heavily on sci-fi/fantasy pilots, and even procedural-happy CBS has slotted a midseason show in which the prefix “cyber” gets thrown around an awful lot (Intelligence, with Josh Holloway and CSI alum Marg Helgenberger). Three of our five best bets for next season can be classified as sci-fi/fantasy dramas.

Another recurring motif involves “event” programming, which is to say self-contained, limited-run story arcs. Designed to spackle the cracks in an overlong 35-week season, these stand-alone projects allow for scheduled multi-week breaks for popular episodic series without having to rely on repeats. The 13-episode scheme is also a nod to the cable model; three of the five broadcast programming chiefs (ABC’s Paul Lee, NBC’s Bob Greenblatt, Fox’s Kevin Reilly) all made their bones on the other side of the fence.

If this year’s upfront market is anything like last year’s—and the preliminary signs suggest that radical shifts in pricing and dollar volume are unlikely—then the last budgets will be registered just after Memorial Day weekend, clearing the way for the first round of dealmaking to begin. As buyers and sellers prepare to negotiate terms, here’s a rundown of what will be on the table at each network.


CBS
Les Moonves last Wednesday kicked off his day crowing to reporters that his network was on the verge of winning the seasonal ratings race by the largest margin in 24 years. But before the CBS Corp. CEO moved on to talk about his network’s fall schedule, he took a moment to address some barbs thrown at him by ABC mouthpiece Jimmy Kimmel. In accordance with classical precedent, the late-night host mocked CBS (“those smug motherfuckers”) for its older demos. Moonves responded that he was “flattered” to be characterized as such. “You don’t call somebody [that] unless they’re smug and they’re winning,” Moonves observed. “We’ll try to be a little less smug and a little more gracious, but that’s hard for me, as you know. But anyway, Jimmy, ABC is still going to finish fourth in 18-49.”

With few holes to fill in its prime-time lineup (the network renewed 20 series for 2013-14), CBS is beefing up on comedies. After years of speculation, CBS finally pulled the trigger on a two-hour Thursday night comedy block, bookending newbies The Millers (Will Arnett) and The Crazy Ones (Robin Williams, Sarah Michelle Gellar) with ratings giant The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. Monday nights will usher in the single-camera bromance We Are Men and the latest Chuck Lorre project, Mom (Anna Faris).

While Carnegie Hall responded to the clips with metronomic whoops and roars, the comedies were discouragingly crass. But that’s sort of missing the point. “Look, that’s not really my cup of tea, either,” rationalized one national TV buyer. “But nobody understands their audience better than CBS. Those shows were all on-brand … and whatever you may think of Robin Williams, that one is going to get huge sampling.”

While analysts project that pricing premiums won’t go north of 6 percent (Moonves boasted he expects closer to 10 percent), CBS will probably be the only network to post significant volume increases—and will likely lead the market. Barclays eyes a 10.5 percent improvement, with CBS raking in a record $2.93 billion in advance commitments.

Fox
Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly last Monday acknowledged that the network had taken its lumps this season. (Through 33 weeks, Fox is averaging a 2.5 in the 18-49 demo, down 22 percent versus a year ago.) “We had some challenges … particularly in the fall,” Reilly said, before adding that things are decidedly looking up. “Next season, we’ve got the Super Bowl … and we’re making the biggest investment in entertainment programming that we’ve ever made.”

After delivering the top-rated new series in its bloody crime drama The Following, Fox is eager to strike while the spatter is fresh. The network takes its biggest swings with the giddily bonkers Sleepy Hollow and J.J. Abrams’ paranoid android cop drama, Almost Human. “Sleepy Hollow, if it’s going to work anywhere, it’ll work on Fox,” said Noah Everist, associate media director at Campbell Mithun’s Compass Point Media. “They really program to their strengths.”

Everist said he’s not at all surprised by the abundance of sci-fi/fantasy projects on the schedule (Fox is also prepping the self-contained M. Night Shyamalan fable, Wayward Pines). “Anytime you see a genre deliver like sci-fi has, you’re going to see everyone hop aboard the bandwagon. Which they’ll ride until it breaks down, and then they’ll go look for something else,” Everist said.

Added another buyer: “The problem with this type of show is, you can’t sustain the necessary budgets over a 22-, 23-episode season. There should be less wear and tear on their genre stuff if they stick to shorter orders.”

With fewer GRPs to sell and pricing premiums expected to come in at around 6 percent, Fox could face a tough upfront. Per Barclays estimates, the net stands to book $1.88 billion in upfront commitments, down 14.5 percent versus last year’s $2.2 billion.

NBC
After every last one of its freshman comedies failed last season, NBC has come back to the table with a clutch of traditional family comedies and cop shows that wouldn’t look out of place on CBS.

If anything can be characterized as a consensus favorite, it’s The Michael J. Fox Show. The Monday crowd at Radio City Music Hall cheered the cut-down, which had its share of genuinely funny moments. Buyers were also intrigued by the James Spader drama Blacklist. According to NBC entertainment president Bob Greenblatt, the new crime thriller out-tested NBC’s last 125 drama pilots, making it the network’s best-received one-hour show in a decade.

NBC is also embracing the other big upfront trends, launching the limited series (10 episodes) Dracula in the fall and rolling out J.J. Abrams’ supernatural adventure Believe on Sundays in midseason.

Analysts expect NBC will be flat to slightly up on volume, which would put its upfront take at around $1.81 billion.

ABC
Given heavy cross-promotion on ESPN, it’s hard to imagine Joss Whedon’s Avengers spin-off, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., won’t prove to be a monster hit. “As a viewer, I’m excited to be able to get into the Marvel universe every week,” Everist said. “Does it make sense for all my clients? Probably not … But if they scheduled it on Thursday nights, I bet it would soak up all the movie dollars.”

ABC perhaps has made the largest investment in new programming, slating eight fall premieres (four dramas, four comedies) and rebuilding Tuesdays from the ground up. S.H.I.E.L.D. leads off at 8 p.m., followed by freshmen comedies The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife and the lottery drama Lucky 7.

Not everyone believes it’s a sound strategy to run an entirely new night without a single established anchor. “As we know, that almost always works,” snarked CBS scheduler Kelly Kahl. But ABC didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. The 8 p.m. slot this season has been inhabited by everything from Dancing With the Stars to the show about celebrities and diving boards (Splash), while lead-outs Happy Endings, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23 and Private Practice are all no more.

Per Barclays, ABC’s strength among female viewers could earn it a bit of a volume bump, raising a projected $2.58 billion in upfront revenue.

The CW
The CW’s original programming is so seamlessly designed with its core demos in mind (women 18-34, adults 18-34) that it often seems as if the pilots were whipped up in a laboratory. Unfortunately, as appealing a target as those young viewers may be, it does the network very little good if its deliveries to mobile devices aren’t being credited.

“Younger audiences are clearly consuming video across all screens … And that is going to change how we do what we do forever—it already has, really,” said Kris Magel, evp, director of national broadcast at Initiative. “This is actually good for advertisers … Because when people watch on-demand, they have specifically set aside that time to view the program. They are less distracted. And they notice and pay more attention to commercials.”

Buyers reacted most strongly to the costume drama Reign and the midseason sci-fi thriller The 100, but the promo for the upcoming Romeo & Juliet/District 9 mashup Star-Crossed drew a fair amount of chuckles from the crowd—unfortunate, given that it’s an angsty teen-alien drama.

The CW last year booked some $410 million in advance sales. Analysts said it’s unlikely the network will surpass that haul this time around, although if it can get better rates for its digital properties, an uptick is not out of the question.