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Critic's Notebook: 'Upfronts' are a sign of the season

The once-private meetings are now very public. Hopefully, they won't make the fall season seem like old news once it finally starts.

May 23, 2011|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Los Angeles Times Television Critic Robert Lloyd stills get a childhood thrill of anticipation when the fall season hoves into distant view, and there are a lot of new shows hoving this year. A Zooey Deschanel comedy (Fox's "The New Girl")? Yes, please.
Los Angeles Times Television Critic Robert Lloyd stills get a childhood… (Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty…)

The TV news was all about the "upfronts" last week, a yearly ritual held in New York City, where the networks present upcoming series to the sponsors they hope will pay to keep them on the air. This used to be a basically private, minimally newsworthy affair, but over the last several years it has become increasingly a publicly reported one, pushing the fall-season news cycle back to late spring.

Some of this is because of the mutually reinforcing relationship between a news media increasingly concerned with earliness and an industry out for as much coverage as it can get. But just as movie receipts have long since become mainstream news, the inner workings of television are now part of the way many enjoy the medium — much as knowing something about the back office can enrich your experience of baseball or learning that the members of a band hate one another might perversely increase your enjoyment of their music.

And just as each movie studio once had its iconic mogul and distinguishing house style, so have the networks, notwithstanding in some cases a lack of managerial continuity, discovered theirs: ABC is warm and eccentric, CBS kicks it old school, Fox is snarky, the CW is for the kids, and fourth-place NBC, so the oft-related story goes, is the gang who can't shoot straight. Its poor performance and corporate misadventures furnish grist for late-night hosts and the writers of the network's own "30 Rock."

Each network does try to be something the others are not, even as they all work to improve their performance across all demographics. Everyone wants a piece of the young; even though older viewers spend more money, it's still good to be able to say the kids like what you're doing, because kids are cool in this culture and the old are not, unless they are ironically old, like Betty White or William Shatner. (And his sitcom has just been canceled.) ABC is looking for a few good men to balance its primary appeal to women, and CBS would like a few good women for the opposite reason.

Because the upfronts are a kind of talent show — staged in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and the like, with network stars to charm the buyers and comic emcees to knock the competition — the narrative of success and failure that once held off at least until the second week of September has already begun. Indeed, as the media have begun in recent years to cover pilot season — even, in some corners, to review scripts — the start of that story has been pushed back, as it were, into the womb. Shows now may be pronounced dead at a stage when they once would have hardly been known to be alive.

As a critic, this backstage drama is not without interest, though professionally I unwrap every new show as if fresh, with a willful disregard for the advantages or disadvantages of its birth. Neither do I care to reckon its probable success, which is not a measure of quality. And say what you will about the management of NBC — and between Conan and Comcast there's plenty to say — it has some of the smartest comedies on television. It has managed five seasons of "Friday Night Lights."

I am not immune to this moment. Even though I know that many of the fall's new series will not live up to the expectations even of the people who created them, I still get a childhood thrill of anticipation when the fall season hoves into distant view, and there are a lot of new shows hoving this year. A Zooey Deschanel comedy (Fox's "The New Girl")? Yes, please. Jason Isaacs in alternating existences (NBC's "Awake")? I am interested. Jorge Garcia and Sam Neill and a time-traveling prison break (Fox's "Alcatraz," slated for midseason)? I will see you then. The return of Christina Applegate, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Annie Potts? Welcome, potentially. I hope I will not have tired of the news of your arrival by the time you finally arrive.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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