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.


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.


Recommended articles