With the network upfronts starting Monday, I thought you all would enjoy a post from my blog, Revenge of the Masked Scheduler, on some of my experiences putting on upfronts at two networks. Enjoy and have fun next week.
Next week the five broadcast networks descend upon New York City to peddle their wares. BOMBS AWAY … here come the upfront presentations! Yippee!!! Now I’ve attended quite a few of these puppies over the past 30 years. I was at the Hilton for the legendary Brandon Tartikoff marathons. They would start at breakfast and run for five-plus hours. Back then I worked in research, and Brandon would invite me to help him prepare for the presentation. I was there to help him with the ratings (man, did he love to put up the charts), but being the smartass that I was, I would pitch him some jokes, which were generally met with cold stares from the legendary Mr. Tartikoff.
For example, one year we were moving “Quantum Leap” to a new night and an earlier time period. Brandon was looking for a hook. I spoke up: “How about ‘If he can leap through time, he can leap through time periods.'” Cold stare.
I was at Carnegie Hall for NBC’s 1991 upfront when Johnny Carson told the crowd that he was leaving “The Tonight Show” the following May. I was sitting in the back of the hall with a colleague, and we looked at each other with these stunned expressions.
That was Warren Littlefield’s baptism by fire. During a chunk of the 1990s, Warren and I (with help from Eric Cardinal, our head of program research) would write the upfront presentation at 30 Rock over Mother’s Day weekend — and we actually wrote them on legal pads. Warren’s assistant, Patty Mann, would type them up. We eventually graduated to floppy disks (kids, ask your parents), but it was labor intensive.
I actually had an opportunity to write a joke for Jerry Seinfeld. Here’s the story: The presentation would generally start with some sort of gag reel, generally featuring Warren with our stars. Then we would bring out our head of sales, Larry Hoffner, who would bring the festivities to a crashing halt by droning on for several minutes. One year, when we were in the middle of our four-season run as the No. 1 network, we were going to have Jerry open the show after Larry’s speech.
We felt that Larry would just kill the excitement of having one the biggest stars on network television doing a monologue, so I was given the thankless task of asking Larry if he would defer from speaking. Fortunately, Larry was fine with it. We told Jerry that he would open the show, and Jerry asked if he should say anything about no Hoffner. I said, “Tell the audience Larry has no material.” HE USED IT!! The next year Jerry again opened the show, Hoffner did not go on and Jerry said Larry STILL didn’t have any material. Fun times.
While at FOX, we had some epic disasters. The first upfront presentation I attended was on the Intrepid — that’s right, a freaking boat on the Hudson River in midtown Manhattan. It was cold, and foghorns were going off during the presentation. There was one staircase leading from the upper deck to the party below.
After “American Idol” came along, we did an upfront presentation where Gail Berman tried to explain our three-pronged scheduling strategy (year-round scheduling — sound familiar?). We were mocked and ridiculed, and then we went on to win eight seasons in a row in the 18-49 demo.
Nothing will top the disaster at the Armory on Lexington Avenue. The year before this debacle, we held our upfront at City Center, a theater in Midtown, and I guess there were some complaints that important media buyers were given bad seats. George Oswald, our events planner extraordinaire at FOX, was tasked with finding a different venue. We wound up in a National Guard armory on a hot, muggy afternoon. It was 80 degrees and humid inside; Brad Garrett made some joke about banging Ryan Seacrest, and Kiefer Sutherland came out to tell everyone it was pouring outside. The roof then started to leak. It was the most disastrous upfront I ever attended.
Which gets me to the point of all this. I left the armory with Craig Erwich, a good friend in programming who is now at Hulu. We grabbed a cab to the Upper East Side for our party — yet another disaster. Craig was devastated. We do all this work and it’s undermined by this crappy presentation. I looked at him and said that none of this really matters … it’s all BS … the buyers will eat our shrimp and drink our booze and then go back and watch the full pilots and share out the schedules. Sure, we may take a hit in the press and the trade publications for a day or so, but so what.
Guess what? The media buyers, in spite of that abomination of an upfront presentation, did not punish us. The following year, we did the entire presentation in an hour (and back at City Center). We got kudos not because we necessarily had better shows, but because we got everyone to the booze and the shrimp quicker than in prior years. That’s all that really matters.
I went on a rampage at work to do away with the upfront presentation and just have a kick-ass party in the evening. Put everything else online so that agencies can see the trailers and we can give them a rationale for the schedule. It would save us quite a bit of money, and we would enter the 21st century. There would be no impact on what we would bring in. Someone will do it.
So next week all the networks will again lead with their chin. There will be talent to embarrass us, trailers that fall flat, schedules that don’t make sense, and shows that will never make it to the fall. I continue to wonder if it really matters. At least Brandon knew how to put everyone to sleep for five hours.
Good luck to all next week!