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Op-Ed: Sitting This One Out – Reminiscing About My Time with the Upfronts

We welcome back Don Seaman, manager of marketing communications for TVB, which is the non-profit trade association of America’s commercial broadcast TV industry. Now that he’s given us his Super Bowl take, the exec discusses skipping out on this year’s TV upfronts, but doesn’t hold back on reflecting. Take it away, sir.

There was a time, not so long ago, that the networks held back some surprises for some buzz to be made from the actual Upfront presentations.  The events meant something, whether it was an announcement of a surprise renewal or cancellation, a new star joining the network family, or just a major timeslot change.

These days, announcements are made to the press over the weekend.  The events are basically just a way to pay Coldplay their legally binding royalty fees for using their song all week.  You can even find clips of the new shows released in advance of the presentations.  If this trend continues, in ten years the Upfronts may just consist of a login code to get in and a Groupon free drink deal as the after party.

Time was, Upfront Invites were like Golden Tickets to the Wonka candy factory.  I know my experience wasn’t like everyone’s.  I was a fairly established broadcast researcher for an agency, which meant that I was more like Charlie Bucket – hoping for my ticket in, keeping my fingers crossed, and thanking my good fortune when my invite came.  Then there were the buying groups, particularly the assistant buyers, who were represented by Veruca Salt – attendance is their birthright.  Their benefactors didn’t score them the goose that laid the golden eggs, but it did give them a sense of entitlement, along with their fill of free canapés and top-shelf liquor at the announcement after parties, and very often some very comfy leather couches to relax and recover on.  Only nobody’s leaving the network to a lucky pure-hearted, childlike attendee at the end of this tour.

But I still half expect to see Les Moonves approach the gates in a purple overcoat and top hat eventually.  Of course, he’d then claim that they were still the #1 network for Total Oompa-Loompa viewing.

I didn’t get to any of the Upfronts this year.  But that’s OK, since we pretty much all knew what was coming well before the lights went down, anyway, thanks to the networks revoking their long-held “no spoiler alert” policies.  But I did get to thinking about what I have seen during this week, so here are some of my own experiences of the Upfront process, and how the week can go from exhilarating to excruciating in a nanosecond.

The Pre-Show Experience:

Since I’m part of the “out crowd” of research, I’m usually left to my own devices to find myself a seat.  The buyers and account folk all come equipped with clients, who get premium seating and save enough seats for themselves better than the Titanic survivors did.

At one venue, we were told that “the best seats are on the Mezzanine,” so we were pointed to our left to an elevator that was clearly made for children without briefcases.  Once we reached the Mezzanine, we were directed to go to our left (towards the “best seats”), not towards the right, which led to the rest rooms.  Being attaché-bearing adults, we dutifully left the elevator, pausing briefly to begin breathing again as the more cholesterol-endowed of the passengers exited.

So off to the left we went, towards those purported “best seats.”  The back left of the Mezzanine would hardly qualify as where the “best seats” would typically be, but we were too busy reintroducing oxygen to our systems to care.

The house lights began to dim and a stern voice implored the “guests” that “the show was about to begin, so please take your seats.”  This elicited a mad frenzy of malaise from this otherwise inattentive crowd.  This reporter valiantly stayed seated, even though every instinct I had told me that it might cause me to beaten by my fellow attendees.

Mostly, the crowd stands in front of their seats, facing backwards, as they wait for the rest of their entourage to arrive.  These are the gatekeepers, the front lines, the Defenders of the Seats.  The minority of the rest of us just want them to sit down and shut up.  Call us Team Stern Voice.

Of course, there was still one event whose organizers told me upon arriving there that mine was a ticket for the “auxiliary facility” – the Regal Cinema down the street, where I could go and watch the simulcast.  Hey, at least I got free popcorn upon reaching the summit of the screening theater, mere 28 or so escalators above 42nd Street.  But I still felt like I was sitting at the card table with the kids on Thanksgiving.

Once this annual weekly flurry of repetitive socializing and inactivity passes, it’s time for the shows.

A Few Words about The Actual Presentations:

It’s here that networks do some interesting things.  Besides the traditional “we’re #1 in W35-49 for the 374th consecutive broadcast season” statements, night-by-night preview s, new program teasers and general network sizzle videos, they do try to throw in some entertainment to the proceedings.  Some of it works, some doesn’t.  Here are some of the more memorable things they’ve tried, at least that I saw and haven’t blocked out:

  • Scenes from the Broadway version of “The Lion King”
  • Jane Krakowski, singing and dancing in a short skirt for Fox, before she was paid to spoof herself doing that by NBC
  • Introductions of Friends, Lost, 24, and Modern Family that created some buzz in the crowd (especially the full episode of Modern Family)
  • A dozen footballs thrown to the crowd that the network had money left over for after renewing their NFL contract.  I would’ve gotten one, too, if Collinsworth didn’t have such a spaghetti arm.
  • Lenny Kravitz brought out at 10AM by the WB, looking as excited as you’d expect a rocker to look like in front of a corporate crowd at 10AM.
  • An unidentifiable R&B artist the next day for UPN.  My colleague sitting next to me almost bounced the springs out of his seat, he was so excited.  I found out later it was Usher.
  • LL Cool J and Katy Perry, during separate events, each trying to strong-arm the crowd into standing up during their performances.  We responded with a respectful golf clap.
  • The cast of Glee, performing us out of the theater punctuated by a sudden, subtle 75,000,000 watts of electric lighting aimed from behind the singers, directly into the crowd.  Try walking down a dozen or so theater staircases from the upper balcony after that.  If it hadn’t have been for the crowd flowing me out of there, I’d have landed in the loge section somewhere.
  • Jimmy Kimmel.

The Real Meat – or Meet – of the Week.  The After Parties:

This is where it all comes together.  Deals are begun, stars are spotted, food and drink is eaten and drunk, careers are made, and sometimes things just get out of hand.

If you want your picture taken with a celeb, settle in for a long wait these days.  It used to be more common –  a regularity, even – that the stars would float among the crowd more years ago.  They’d mingle for a while, engage in some unscripted banter, and generally make some young, impressionable ad professional’s day.  Now, they’re whisked to the photo booth, led through the crowd briskly, and strategically placed at the event to talk for a minute before disappearing.

There are four upfront celebrity exchanges that will always stand out to me:

At the NBC after party for the 1997 Upfront, I hung out with the entire cast of NewsRadio, basically by myself, for about an hour or so.  Maura Tierney and I split a glass of wine.  Phil Hartman was the only one not in our little group – I saw him from a distance as he was holding court as a “big star”, still shorn from his stint in the movie remake of “Sgt. Bilko.” Within a year or so, he was dead.  So disheartening.

I once harangued X-Files star Gillian Anderson into admitting that she detested these types of hypefests.  She denied it a couple of times at first, but then agreed.  But I’m still not sure if she was being honest or if it was like when an innocent defendant finally admits to a crime he didn’t commit, just to end the mental torture.

I randomly ran into Medium’s Patricia Arquette near an exit stairwell at the CBS upfront event – their first with CBS after quickly being picked up from NBC.  We had a fairly substantive discussion about her show, and she actually seemed disappointed when I “released” her to go on to the rest of the event, where she clearly was supposed to be instead.

Lastly, during a photo shoot for his show The Contender on NBC, I quickly shook Sugar Ray Leonard’s hand and wished him a happy birthday.  It was May 17, 2007.  He just happens to be one of my celebrity birthdays.  Since somehow none of the networks ever took the opportunity to lead the industry in singing happy birthday to me during my many years of spending my birthday with them, I found my own little magic coincidence of coming face to face with the former champion of the world on our birthday.

I’ll bet he still tells that story, too.

That’s why I’m thinking about this today, and why this week is so important.  As I write this, it’s May 17, 2012.  Happy birthday again, Champ.

That’s why there’s still magic in the upfronts, and why they still go on.  I still remember Maura’s wine and Patricia’s sweetness.  And seriously, what are the chances of me even being in the same ZIP code as Sugar Ray on “our” birthday, let alone handshakeable?

We all got into the television business because we loved TV.  The Upfronts, warts and all, remind us for a sometimes grueling, sometimes maddening, sometimes remarkable week, that television is a pretty magic place when it wants to be.



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