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‘Upfronts’ Go Low Key

Posted by Mort Greenberg on May 11, 2008

Article Source: http://wsj.com

Television

By REBECCA DANA
May 10, 2008; Page A2

During this strike-wounded TV season, some television executives consoled themselves by saying that the turmoil might at least prompt changes in one of the industry’s more cumbersome traditions: the annual “upfront” presentations to advertisers. In a world of year-round program introductions and digital video recorders, these expensive pep rallies to trumpet the “fall season” seemed old-fashioned.

[upfront]
Associated Press
Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo, from left, with ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” react to a reporter’s question during ABC’s 2006 Winter Press Tour.

No such luck. This year they need upfront razzle-dazzle more than ever.

Two weeks into the May “sweeps” period, when the networks trot out their best attention-grabbing programming and audiences are usually among the largest of the year, ratings for the broadcasters are down about 20% from last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Spooked advertisers will be looking for a sign from network executives that autumn will bring the return of those viewers who defected to cable and the Internet during this winter’s crippling 100-day Hollywood writers’ strike. They will want further assurances that a possible actors’ strike this summer won’t disrupt next season as this one was.

The strike delayed by several weeks the traditional spring development period, where networks and studios decide which veteran series to pick up for another year and order pilots for new shows. Consequently, the networks will have few polished pilots to show advertisers.

Instead, the networks have prepared an array of low-key presentations, combining scant video clips with plenty of evocative descriptions of the shows yet to come.

Executives will emphasize the past year’s efforts to dramatically expand broadcast television’s presence on the Web, whether with home sites such as Walt Disney Co.’s ABC.com, or other video-streaming sites, including Hulu.com, a joint venture between News Corp.‘s Fox and General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal.

Networks will also try to allay advertisers’ fears about digital video recording devices, which allow viewers to record programs and fast-forward through commercials. Part of that effort means working more branded products into actual story lines of shows. According to a Nielsen survey released last week, product placements on broadcast network shows rose 39% in the first quarter of 2008, compared with the same period last year.

In lieu of an “upfront,” NBC at first hoped to get away with a series of “infront” presentations in April. But in the end, NBC opted not to forgo an upfront-week presentation: The company will host an “experience,” walking would-be advertisers through a life-size diorama of NBC Universal’s multiplatform programming plans for the next 15 months.

CBS Corp.’s CBS and ABC have both canceled their once-lavish after-parties, opting for lower-key events. ABC’s presentation, which in past years included song-and-dance numbers featuring both senior network management and talent, will instead have only two executives on stage, conversing in adjacent armchairs.

Write to Rebecca Dana at rebecca.dana@wsj.com

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