Wednesday is CBS, at Carnegie Hall. If Fox is bombastic and ABC is classy and NBC is the lunatic making dance moves that might put someone’s eye out, CBS is proudly, smugly square. “Am I sexy?” asks CEO Les Moonves. “My wife thinks I’m sexy—or at least that’s what she tells me!” All the jokes are like that, corny and safe, from Simon Baker’s faux-hotness to the usually lovable Neil Patrick Harris doing frat-boy minstrelsy. Still, with its dopey “up-arrows” floating across the screen, CBS’s “we’re No. 1!” sell is compelling, if in a depressing way: People love our dullest shows! They cheer their purchase of Medium, which NBC dumped. The reality pilot Undercover Boss strikes a chord with this audience of people terrified of being fired.
The after-party—at Terminal 5 instead of CBS’s old venue, Tavern on the Green—is sweaty and miserable, with chocolate fortune cookies containing the unsettlingly fascist message “Only CBS.” It occurs to me that all this branding is itself oddly dated, to viewers if not to marketers—how many television viewers are loyal to one network anymore, now that the very concept of a time slot has nearly dissolved?
"If NBC is the lunatic making dance moves that might put someone’s eyes out, CBS is proudly square."
By the bar, two 27-year-old ad buyers repeat everyone’s mantra: The mood is “cautious,” rates will go down. But unlike the buyer at Fox, this pair seems downright jittery, and the taller one argues that nobody knows what’s going to happen: “We thought we knew what would happen with the writers’ strike, and everyone was wrong!” He himself loved Kimmel’s truth-telling, he tells me, found it hilarious: “He said what everyone was thinking.”
Let’s see, who have we missed? The CW brought in more hot young bodies, some undead (The Vampire Diaries!). And while everyone else was bargaining down or abandoning drama, tiny TNT made a pricey Hail Mary pass, launching a third night of original programming with movie stars, plus a Ray Romano dramedy, whose producer hocks the show so charmingly I’m helplessly seduced. Because this is the truth about the upfronts, that while everyone would like to see right through the shrimp—to let rational numbers pour down in icy green calculations—the fan brain is like the lizard brain: It pulses beneath. At a luncheon at Del Posto, TNT bombards the press with celebrities: Kyra Sedgwick, Dylan McDermott, Holly Hunter—so many tiny people with muscular arms. I check the place cards and realize I’m seated next to Jeffrey Katzenberg, then scurry to the bathroom to read his Wikipedia entry, nearly colliding with Jada Pinkett Smith perched on Will Smith’s lap.
Talking to Katzenberg is impossible, like chatting with a watch mechanism. But after a lovely interlude with Holly Hunter—we discuss the question of Buddhism in a world of distraction—I’m burned out. TNT, you win: Put this many stars in a room with me, my brain stops working.
I run off to the bathroom to reapply lipstick. A producer who was also at the ABC presentation is in there freshening up, and like me, she’s stunned by the high-powered show this tiny non-network put on. ABC, she notes, took a more restrained approach this year. And then she glances over, with a curious smile: “What did you think of Kimmel?”
I wasn’t sure what to think, I say.
She giggles. “There was a moment when I thought: Do I have a job tomorrow? Is that it? Are we going to get any ad dollars?” She shakes her hair and heads for the door. “You’d think someone would have vetted that guy. What was it—he was mad about the Leno thing?”