Most of you reading this have not ever or do not currently work in the media industry. However, because social media makes many people appear to be insiders these days, you may have heard of something called the upfronts.
There’s a lot of talk about upcoming TV shows and glitzy presentations hosted throughout Midtown Manhattan here in New York City. Any entertainment media outlet worth its salt has some sort of analysis about these programs, and multiple stars of the big and small screens come out for interviews hyping these new projects.
Yet, the question remains. What the hell are upfronts?
They are a lengthy process for both television networks and media-buying agencies (on behalf of their clients) to negotiate the purchase of a majority of commercial time for the upcoming fall season — purchasing an estimated $9 BILLION in advertising up front for 2015-16.
They’re also the reason why you even know about the upcoming fall slate of television as networks tout their newest offerings with elaborate presentations and subsequent parties. The stars come out to preen and be seen while entry-level agency employees share awkward selfies on Instagram that sort of have a celebrity in it. While the announcements are made as part of marketing campaigns by the networks, they’re mainly geared toward advertisers to build hype within as the negotiations begin in earnest.
Sound familiar? Well, they should as the upfronts are not too dissimilar to what we see every year in sports. In many ways, the upfronts are like a college draft for professional sports leagues. There’s a ton of hype, a lot of potential, plenty of overanalysis and seemingly little tempering of expectations. Yet, as it takes a few years to see if a player pans out, it actually takes a few weeks to see if a TV show does.
If you’re still confused on what this all is, here are the common threads of these events.
Ridiculous Hype: Good, bad and ‘meh, we’ll see.’
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns. All the Chicago Cubs under the age of 25.
Aquarius. Wayward Pines. Heroes Reborn. Minority Report. ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 slate. Quantico.
Go to your most trusted sources of information and chances are there have been breathless tomes and vicious takes on each player and each show. Players who performed beyond the wildest expectations on the Wonderlic exam. Accomplished actors bringing their names onto a show because they fell in love with the spec scripts. OMG, he was coached up by (insert the latest college head coach genius here)! OMG, they got (insert showrunner who came from a hit TV show here)!
And if there’s even a tiny bit of controversy behind a player or an actor, it will be a large part of that person’s story leading up to the moment he or she is drafted or committed to a show.
The industry even has its own “draft gurus,” a la Mel Kiper Jr. as the major ad agencies, and trade media outlets such as Advertising Age and Adweek have their TV experts who weigh in on the likelihood of a show’s success or failure.
That in itself is the interesting part. Besides the aforementioned athletes and TV shows, there are even more that don’t garner the hype or gain minimal industry buzz because of what they are not. This guy played in a weaker conference. This show has a dramatic actress who’s new to comedy. He’s going to have to change positions at the next level because he’s too small to play on the low block.
Damn, no one has even hit the field in a real game yet!
Very few players have long careers. Very few shows have multiple seasons.
So your team grabs the coveted first rounder on Thursday, a so-called sleeper and depth guys on Friday, and JAGs on Saturday.
So your network has been touting a new prime time drama for Thursday nights, a few comedies for Tuesdays and Wednesdays, greenlights a spinoff of its biggest hit for Sundays and throws up a few midseason replacements for the inevitable cancelling of a show that couldn’t prove itself to be worth another season.
Those players are replacing someone on the main roster at some point. After all, for the teams that don’t win championships (and even those that do), we constantly say that they need to find better starters or add depth to their rosters. Unfortunately, the new guys make older veterans or unimpressive young players expendable.
The same goes for television shows. In fact, you’ve seen more buzz about shows that were cancelled than the shows that will take their old time slots when fall schedules are announced later this summer. Take a look at this exhaustive list from The Futon Critic, a resourceful site for TV buffs and industry insiders. You will see a ton of shows that you barely remember hearing about this time last year as well as a few of your favorites that didn’t perform as the network would have liked. You will also see a bunch of new projects that are coming in to replace the now-cancelled and ended shows on next year’s schedule.
Of course, for the shows that have seemingly been on forever, they get season-long, Derek Jeter-esque retirement parties and a formal series ending as we will see for FOX’s American Idol in 2016.
Out with the old or new-ish; in with the newer.
Not every draft produces a Hall of Famer. Not every upfront introduces a genre-defining or network-building hit.
There are certain years the four major leagues can refer to when it comes to incredible draft classes. These drafts featured multiple Hall of Famers, All-Stars and contributors with lengthy careers in the NBA, NHL, NFL and Major League Baseball. Yet, for as many makes as those years had, there are even more misses. Some, such as the widely considered “worst ever” 2000 NBA draft class, are infamous for flame-outs and overzealous expectations by desperate teams. Most drafts give you a handful of really good contributors mixed in with players who peaked in college or perhaps overestimated their value respective to a team’s roster or the depth of similar prospects in a given year.
Few shows can be The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, Black-ish or Empire. Even fewer get prestigious awards that lead to superfluous labels such as “critically acclaimed” or “the best show on television” despite the fickleness of the viewing audience. Not every television show can become franchise building blocks as The Shield was for FX, Monk was for USA and The Closer was for TNT. Not every show can become as reliable as the original Law & Order was for NBC for nearly 20 years.
As audiences learned in 2007, you’re more likely to have the horrible Bionic Woman reboot or GEICO infomercial on ABC, Cavemen, than The Big Bang Theory and Mad Men.
Many players will be out of the league within three years or less. Many TV shows will be cancelled within a year, two or three if lucky.
By the end of the season, many of the athletes who put their names in the draft would have only had a cup of coffee in the league. And there are different points when these players have to turn in their playbooks. Quite a few don’t survive training camp while others are let go or at least sent down to the minors in Major League Baseball, the NHL or, increasingly, the NBA. Some get another chance to show and prove for another season, but with new rookies entering the fray, the chances of staying on the roster shrink even more.
In television, a fall show that didn’t catch on as a network hoped is usually cancelled before the first snow of the winter, which is why it invests in programs the industry call “midseason replacements.” For shows that are a toss-up for renewal or cancellation, networks evaluate a few for possible moves elsewhere on next season’s schedule. Meanwhile, network executives negotiate with studios to produce new pilot shows that can replace cancelled programs and those on the bubble.
Kind of sounds like dating someone afraid of commitment.
Of course, you don’t always outright release a first-round draft pick because the team committed a ton of money in hopes that he pans out. The same goes for a show that was the darling of the upfronts because the network made a huge promotional push. Where most comedies would have been dumped, a heavily advertised bomb like Whitney (NBC, 2012) got two seasons because what team would release someone who was hyped to be a franchise player after one year?
Which is why at the end of the day…
It’s all a crapshoot.
That line bears repeating. It’s all a crapshoot.
No matter what the prognosticators tell you, there isn’t a definitive formula for which players are going to be franchise mainstays or which shows will become reliable performers for television networks. Scouts will have great analytical breakdowns on which prospects have the tools to succeed in the pros, but also look at areas of concern — physically, mentally or emotionally — that can stand in the way. Hard-working research and program development teams use every single tool at their avail to provide some evidence to network executives on what shows will be hits and what shows will be misses.
Of course, with all of that said, a team owner or a network CEO can just ignore the research, listen to the hype of big names and media criticism, and do what he wants because he wants Mike Mayock to give him high draft grades or the industry trades to sing the network’s praises.
After injuries and poor performances, after obnoxious campaigns and terrible writing, we find ourselves back where we started a year later. A team is still looking for a franchise savior. A cable or broadcast network is looking for that one show “everyone’s talking about.”
And we await the next big thing. Again.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon’s beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school’s 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.
He shares more of his perspectives at jasonclinkscales.com.