Fortune editor at large
May 16, 2008: 11:33 AM EDT
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The upfronts week that wasn't

Bowing to the realities of the digital age, the TV networks hold a stripped-down version of their annual showcase of new programs.

By Richard Siklos, editor at large

This year's television upfronts were a relatively restrained affair as the networks rely less on the annual event to showcase new programs to advertisers.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- I am not standing near enormous platters of shrimp and sushi under a tent at Lincoln Center. I am not listening to Maroon Five play while the stars of "Gossip Girl" glow and mingle. I am not at the annual television upfronts because, as you may have heard, they don't really exist any more. They are over, a relic of the past like drive-in movies or bolo ties or Cabbage Patch dolls.

We now live in the era of year-round television programming and cross-platform media selling and Hulu and iTunes. In fact, calling it "TV" doesn't even do justice to the many ways the digital video buffalo can be carved up. And yet, here I am (not) in New York after (not) attending a series of presentations and parties clearly aimed at convincing advertisers that, despite the writers strike that ended in February, the TV business is going strong and they ought to get their orders for spots in early, and in bulk.

Joshing aside, there was no question that this year's post-strike upfront week was different - in some important respects - than in previous years.

During their presentation at Lincoln Center, ABC (DIS, Fortune 500) executives pointed out repeatedly that they would not be throwing a boozy party afterward as had become tradition - though, luckily for those poor, parched attendees, the aforementioned CW party was conveniently held under tents right outside and immediately after the ABC event.

ABC also toned down its presentation by not featuring the stars of "Dancing with the Stars" as it had last year, but did have a funny and cutting appearance by its late-night host, Jimmy Kimmel. And Leslie Moonves, the CEO of CBS (CBS, Fortune 500) (which owns half of the CW), pointed out to me that holding a tent party was itself a more modest effort than the gala it staged at Madison Square Garden last year. Indeed, though CBS booked Carnegie Hall to hold its usual dog-and-pony show, it cancelled its long tradition of feting people afterward at glitzy Tavern on the Green.

One of the more attention-grabbing non-events of the non-upfronts was the "NBC Experience" that the broadcaster held at its Rockefeller Center headquarters. For several weeks, NBC executives had been meeting selectively with big advertisers to give what it dubbed its "infront" presentation of shows in the works. (Which prompted Kimmel, over at ABC, to quip: "They're calling them `infronts' this year because they're just in front of the CW.")

So instead of a big presentation at the upfronts, NBC (GE, Fortune 500) brought advertisers and press people through a kind of fun-house full of blaring TV screens and the celebrities who populate them, and down to a big party where the network brass and talent mixed with advertisers and media - and tried not to gawk at American Gladiators stars giving a sparring demonstration. Speeches by Conan O'Brien and NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker were kept brief.

There's no question that the writers strike affected development of new shows, to differing degrees at different networks. (And indeed, most TV executives said they were cautiously optimistic about averting a potential actors strike this summer.) But there was also further evidence that the networks used the strike's interregnum to think hard about their businesses - and not just in terms of whether or how big of a party to throw. Rare efforts in cross-pollination are one example: ABC picked up "Scrubs," a sitcom that had a successful run on its rival NBC. Similarly, CBS has recently been replaying "Dexter," an original show from its Showtime pay-TV channel, on the broadcast network.

But the biggest change in focus was on advertising, not programming. NBC's entertainment chief Ben Silverman was talking up his network's advances in product integration. He said he now wants to know not just ratings but, for instance, how many cars will be sold as a result of the product integration deal struck with GM for a new NBC show, "My Own Worst Enemy."

ABC, meanwhile, said it was introducing a new audience measurement methodology for advertisers that will give them more information on which demographics are viewing their ads. (Asked if CBS had something similar under development, a CBS executive joked that the network has a proprietary "video index" in the works by which "all our shows are No. 1.")

Jack Myers, a media consultant who writes a well-read newsletter about advertising, last week made the rounds but then announced that he was abandoning his practice of issuing predictions of which network will sell how much advertising at the upfronts. "The upfront is no longer a representative indicator of network performance and the information released by the networks is, at best, questionable," he wrote.

But that suggests that there was, indeed an upfront. I can confirm firsthand that there was no such upfront, and I was certainly not at such a thing, but that the shrimps were quite delicious. To top of page

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