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.
“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.”
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?”
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