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The TV stars, the ads and all that jazz

Networks' 'upfronts' are underway today with NBC out to woo advertisers with its annual presentation of fall shows.

May 12, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When it comes to star power, NBC has an abundance: Jay Leno, Martin Sheen, Kelsey Grammer, Katie Couric, the six perfectly telegenic "Friends."

And then there's Jeff Zucker.

He's vertically and follically challenged, and he possesses no known singing or dancing skills. He is known to have a decent sense of humor, but you won't see him doing stand-up on "The Tonight Show." Nonetheless, the head of NBC Entertainment has nearly $3 billion resting on his ability to, as they say in "Chicago," "give 'em the old razzle-dazzle." But unless you're one of the 2,500 advertisers, studio executives or journalists holding a ticket to his one-time-only show, slated for today in Manhattan's Lincoln Center, you can forget about seeing him perform at the annual home-grown talent show known as the "upfront."

His will be a high-wire act: On Friday night, he still hadn't written his speech, and the first full rehearsal wasn't until Sunday evening. All weekend long, rehearsals and planning meetings were shuffled, rescheduled or rushed through; the business of arranging a schedule and then orchestrating a show that highlights it -- to a historically skeptical audience, no less -- is messy and not for the fainthearted.

But at least Zucker will be surrounded by a great cast of backup singers, including the stars of NBC's "Will & Grace," who will entertain the audience with a racy, custom-written ditty that, as of Friday, had gone through 16 versions and that pokes fun at him for being a "tiny hairless genius."

NBC's is the first of this week's broadcast network upfront presentations, which sell the fall season shows and kick off bidding for the preponderance of network ad time for the coming year. Last year, NBC took home $2.7 billion in upfront sales, more than any other network. It hopes to take home at least that much this year, when advertisers are expected to spend an estimated $8.6 billion in advance buys on NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, WB and UPN. With those six plus the Spanish-language networks all vying for the attention of Madison Avenue this week with similarly elaborate stage shows, the pressure is on to wow.

This isn't some Dilbert-like enterprise, after all; this is show business, where nothing less than sensational is acceptable.

"We could put up a chart [of the schedule], but this is the way it's always been," said Vince Manze, co-president and creative director of the NBC Agency, the in-house ad agency producing today's show. "We're entertainers. It has to look like we know what we're doing."

The benefits of the events, which can cost up to $2 million, are questionable. Much of the advertiser money will be allocated using complex computer programs, analyzing how networks did this season, with some best-guessing thrown in for how new shows will perform. Despite the trappings of scientific analysis, it's an imprecise process. Just three years ago, CBS was touting "The Fugitive" and "CSI" for Friday night; "The Fugitive" got the ad dollars and attention, only to die a quick death, while "CSI" is the runaway hit.

The networks, however, still view the events as a key time to position their brands, even if it requires creating gag tapes and poking fun at executives' foibles. NBC's message will stress its dominance among a key demographic group of adults ages 18 to 49 as well as upscale viewers, said John Miller, co-president of the NBC Agency.

This year, getting the message through is more difficult than ever. Cable has been romancing advertisers for weeks: Country music's Wynonna woke up Lifetime's breakfast crowd, and Grammy-winner Norah Jones crooned at the TBS/TNT presentation; even the Weather Channel had a performance by Michelle Branch.

The combined MTV networks, from VH1 to Spike (the renamed TNN) and Nick at Nite, mounted an over-the-top two-hour-plus extravaganza last week at the Madison Square Garden Theater that started with Elton John and ended with Kid Rock, and brought advertisers to their feet. It was a full-assault pitch for advertisers to divert money from the broadcast networks and buy time on the collective MTV cable networks.

"Life doesn't get any easier," Manze sighed.

Planning started in January, as NBC hammered out themes. " 'Friends' coming back is a very important part of our planning process this year," said Miller. Had it not, Manze said, "the theme was going to be, 'Oh [shoot].' We're certainly going to milk that for what it's worth."

But the six "Friends," who each earn $1 million an episode, are too big, and they weren't likely to get on stage and perform; they haven't been at an NBC presentation since their first year. So, the "Will & Grace" cast was tapped to reprise its appearance of two years ago.

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