Thursday, February 25, 2016

UPFRONTS.... HUH.... WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR.... ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.... YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH

March is almost upon us and that means that Pilot season is in full swing. I wanted to share with you all a post from my late lamented original blog on the Upfront presentations that I attended at both NBC and FOX. That's the culmination of the pilot process. In the following weeks I hope to take you behind the curtain and share my adventures during the two weeks leading up to the presentations in New York City. These will be my experiences and may not reflect how it is being done at other networks or even how it is being done at FBC now that i have departed.

We'll take a look at:

How are pilots screened?

How are pilots tested and how is the data communicated to the program executives?

What goes on in the scheduling room?

So, while you're waiting with breathless anticipation, enjoy this appetizer.

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 thirty 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 upfront presentation. I was there to help him with the ratings (man did he love to put up the charts) but being the smart ass that I was (and I guess still am) 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 for the move. 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 matter of factly told the audience 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 "Did we hear what we think we just heard" stares.                                                         

That was Warren Littlefield's baptism of fire. During a chunk of the 90's Warren and I (with help from Eric Cardinal our head of Program Research) would write the presentations 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 floppies 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 #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, Hoffner did not go on and Jerry said Larry STILL didn't have any material. Fun times.

While at FOX we have 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 fog horns were going off during the presentation. There was one staircase leading from the upper deck to the party below After 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 seven (or 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 and I guess there were some complaints that important media buyers were given bad seats. George Oswald, our events planner extraordinaire was tasked with finding a different venue. We wind up in a fucking Armory on a hot muggy afternoon. It was 80 degrees and humid inside,  Brad Garrett made some joke about banging Ryan Seacrest and Kiefer 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 a good friend in Programming, Craig Erwich. 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 bullshit.... 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. I really believed that.                                                                                                  

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 jihad at work to do away with the upfront presentation and just have a kick ass party in the evening. Put everything else on line 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, we would enter the 21st century and there would be no impact on what we would bring in. Someone will do it but doesn't look like it will be us. 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


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