“I think it’s going to be a very interesting year,” a buyer from Target tells me at the party. “We’re hoping the market will correct itself and we’ll see pricing more in line with the audience they’re delivering.” She and her colleague are here seeking “wholesome” shows, she says—and they love Glee.
I wander over to John Walsh, who created America’s Most Wanted. He tells me nostalgically about his first Fox upfront, in 1988. “It was at the boathouse, and it was a disaster—the video went down! Just me and Johnny Depp, who was on 21 Jump Street, back when Fox was a one-night network: Sunday night.”
On my way out, I approach the one group of people who seem richly, incautiously stoked: the cast of Glee. What’s your job here? I ask Cory Monteith—he plays the football star who can sing. “Thissss!,” he tells me, gesturing around with an all-embracing enthusiasm: at the schlumpy buyers eating pizza, the Anheuser-Busch guys laughing it up with a Fox executive, John Walsh’s daughter talking up her new fashion line.
“You’ve done your job,” says his handler, steering him gently into the magical VIP area just beyond our reach.
On Tuesday, the day I sneak into that elevator with Kimmel, I’m shut out of the ABC upfronts at Avery Fisher Hall: Instead, I’m relegated to their airless “simulcast” room, across Columbus Avenue. But even from a block away, ABC’s presentation feels radically different from Fox’s pugnacious blast. President Anne Sweeney presents ABC’s brand as upscale, sophisticated; she plays a montage of ads with the slogan “ABC and your creative are wonderful together.” Instead of mocking Twitter, she touts Hulu. She praises Ad Lab, a research institute that has studied pairing “live” ads with taped ones. (Sweeney then runs a Kimmel clip—minutes before he does his routine—and charmingly delivers the punch line: “You may not know it yet, but your intent to purchase ABC just went up 13 percent.”) ABC even airs its entire pilot for the very funny sitcom Modern Family.
Afterward, I rush across the street to try to catch a few ad people, which is how I end up following them up into that glossy aerie, a whole other planet from Fox’s after-party: There’s an elite vibe, crisp air-conditioning—also, no security. (There’s shrimp here, too.) Deal-making is everywhere: A harried woman tells her colleague to “manage expectations” on the sitcom Cougartown; a boss deputizes his underlings, touting his wife as a focus group. On the balcony, with its gorgeous view of springtime New York, I hear one seller announce, “We’ve pretty much gotten out of newspapers at this point.”
Standing with his drink is a handsome older buyer with E*Trade, a silver-haired man with a South African accent and the confident air of, say, Widmore on Lost. He’s been to many upfronts, and yet despite the terrible year, he calls TV “a critical part of the puzzle.” “They say a TV ad is 30 seconds long and a mile wide,” he tells me. “I can get an ad on Yahoo! Finance, and will it get me a transaction? Yes. Will it change the brand for consumers? No.” Advertising may be “the uninvited guest in all of our lives,” but television shows still “optimize the mix”—as long as the price is right.
But like everyone here, he is watching the spectacle with bifocals, emotional as well as financial. He came in “skeptical,” but found himself uplifted: “Modern Family, I want that to succeed,” he says about ABC’s new sitcom. “Glee, I have a good feeling about it.” These are family shows, programming he can watch with his teenage kids, on one of their three DVRs (although he fast-forwards past the ads).
“But would I buy stock in television?” he asks, and for a moment I think he’s actually going to say yes; he seems to want to; he smiles. But then he comes to his senses and says, “The numbers suggest—no. Not yet.”