I’m standing in an elevator at Lincoln Center, surrounded by television-ad buyers, when someone holds the door for Jimmy Kimmel. Puffy-faced, subdued, wearing the foggy smirk that is his trademark, Kimmel lowers his head as the doors close. There’s a muttered exchange with a buyer, and Kimmel responds with a self-deprecating remark, but God knows what he’s thinking; Kimmel’s eyes are shielded by mirrored sunglasses. It’s silent as we ascend, and I honestly can’t tell if the hush is due to the magnetic pull of even a minor celebrity, the marketers around me making quiet calculations, or Kimmel’s recent performance.
Thirty minutes before, Kimmel, in his role as ABC’s dancing monkey, delivered an acridly funny riff at his network’s upfront presentation—a comic disruption of ABC’s annual pitch to ad buyers. “Everything you’ve heard today, everything you’re going to hear this week, is bullshit,” Kimmel announced, to waves of laughter. “Every year we lie to you, and every year you come back for more … You don’t need an upfront, you need therapy. We lied to you, and then you passed those lies along to your clients! Everyone in this room is completely full of shit.” Ninety percent of the new shows ABC is plugging will be canceled by December, he predicts. And after a few more gags—some potent slams at NBC and Leno, a Kiefer Sutherland head-butting bit—he closes with, “Who cares, it’s not your money, just give it to us. I’ll probably see you next year, but no promises.”
Kimmel kills. And it’s true that, as ABC’s flacks will soon heatedly insist—after the Times calls it a “Jerry Maguire–like moment of clarity”—Kimmel’s act is itself an upfront tradition, a variation on the “subversive” humor networks use to demonstrate their savvy. (See 30 Rock.) And yet, and yet … Kimmel’s jokes felt less like a nudge than a jab, because he didn’t aim so much at his network as at the buyers. He broke the mood of ABC’s sunny sales pitch, suggesting that ad folk weren’t creative collaborators; they were suckers, marks, fools.
And nobody wants to be called a fool right now, during this anxious moment for television. With buyers still shaken by the economy, this is the first upfront season in which it’s become impossible to ignore the troubles that riddle the television industry—financial, technological, creative. Automobile ads have dissolved. Cable is ascendant. And none of the default settings are holding: NBC—which skipped the upfronts, giving “infronts” two weeks earlier—has gone rogue, scheduling an hour of Leno every weeknight at ten, touting an “all-year” schedule. With so much in flux, from the rise of DVRs to the Internet’s uncertain effects, ad buyers are feeling at once burned and buoyant: They may be suckers, but they also might also get a true bargain—either now, with networks forced to lower rates, or, if they wait, during the “scatter” season, when (as with airline tickets), prices rise, then dive when the airdate approaches.
When we reach our destination, the elevator doors open to reveal a swank aerie, lined with free Cosmos. Kimmel heads for the men’s room. But me, I’m crashing the party (sorry, ABC), having followed some pharma reps in—and so I head straight for the tuna seviche, ducking my head, trying to fit in in this strange new world.
"Thank god for Fox,” a writer from Adweek tells me in a monotone. “They always bring the shrimp.” It’s Monday, the night before that Kimmel performance, and Fox (which has taken over NBC’s traditional time slot) is hosting what feels like a massive pep rally for its teen-musical Glee. As the crowd drifts toward Wollman Rink, we pass cheerleaders shaking pom-poms, red Glee balloons hovering like zeppelins. My grim colleague is unimpressed: He’s working in a dying industry, he tells me, writing about another one on life support. Also, it’s unseasonably cold for May.
But when we enter Fox’s after-party, it’s as if the world of television hasn’t changed at all. The bash feels like the biggest bar mitzvah ever, with a topiary shaped like the Fox logo, plus pizza, sushi, and waffle sundaes. In the corner, Dollhouse’s Eliza Dushku and Wanda Sykes—whose late-night talk show launches in November—pose for the cameras as starstruck marketers whisper in their ears.
The Fox presentation at City Center had a similar populist, crass edge, with slogans like “Fox dominates” and Fox sales president Jon Nesvig PowerPointing his way through an argument with an invisible critic: Ninety-nine percent of people still watch TV on TV. It’s a lie that cable is the most “upscale”! And after a few swipes at social networking (“Who doesn’t like a good tweet from Ashton Kutcher while he’s waxing his back?”), president of Fox entertainment Kevin Reilly slammed down his message: “People. Like. And. Want. To. Watch. Commercials.” Yet Reilly also promotes a new feature called Alive Air, with scripted extras engineered to “bring brands right into the content”—interstitials harder for viewers to fast-forward through.