This week marks the 20th anniversary of my first Upfront experience (which consisted way back when of only four networks putting on press conferences, presentations and parties, all of them comfortably scattered over a two-week period), and to mark the occasion I watched ABC’s event at home on my computer. It’s the first time that I have not been physically present at a broadcast Upfront presentation since I started writing about television, and while I don’t think it is better to be so totally removed from one’s life experiences (personal, professional or otherwise), I will admit that it was comfortable and convenient.
In truth, it seemed to me that there was little difference between watching this particular presentation at home rather than in Avery Fisher Hall at New York City’s Lincoln Center, in recent years the home to ABC’s annual Upfront events. As was true last year, the Alphabet Net offered a stripped-down, no frills affair that consisted of remarks from a few executives, a comedy routine by Jimmy Kimmel and clips aplenty. There were clips of commercials, clips from Lost (a fond farewell in advance of its final season) and clips from the many new series ABC will introduce in the fall and at midseason (including the entire opening sequence of the new and already much-hyped dramatic thriller Flash Forward). ABC topped all of that off by doing something no network has done since NBC unwisely unspooled the full pilot of the Friends spin-off Joey during its 2004 Upfront presentation: It played the entire first episode of its upcoming mockumentary-style comedy Modern Family. Once upon a time networks routinely included a full episode of what they determined to be a particularly promising new show in their Upfront events. They pretty much stopped doing so after advertisers and journalists alike expressed their extreme displeasure at being held hostage.
Before the Modern Family episode began it seemed to me that there had been no reason to be at the event in person, since all that ABC’s guests were being asked to do was sit and listen to short speeches and look at a big screen. Why travel from office or home simply to watch all that video? There were no stars. There was no entertainment (except for the invaluable Kimmel). There was no party. (It’s as if Fox and ABC exist in different worlds when it comes to Upfront week.) Can it be that only a couple of years have passed since ABC stole the Upfront week glory from its competitors with lavish production numbers featuring the casts of Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty? Was it really only three years ago that Housewives producer Marc Cherry brought the house down with his sensational rendition of Beautiful Girls? At the very least, it would seem that ABC could have flown in the cast of Lost to take an emotional bow as that show approaches its conclusion. The audience would have been on its feet in seconds.
Sitting alone in my home office, it took me a few minutes to get into Modern Family, but when it won me over it knocked me out. Somewhere during those 20 minutes my happiness at watching it in relative comfort was compromised by a sudden desire to be in the room with everyone else and share this discovery of something great, or at least see for myself how others were reacting. (Upfront event audience members are hardly ordinary viewers, but still …)
That was the big loss that came from the off-site viewing experience: Not getting a sense of the room, not only during Modern Family but during the clips from the many new dramas and the other new comedies ABC will debut next season. Of course, I’ll watch the full episodes before rendering any final judgments, but my initial impressions based solely on the clips are that the funky new fall dramas Flash Forward and Eastwick and the midseason mystery Happy Town will be tough sells (though Flash looks to have cult-hit in its DNA); fall crime drama The Forgotten looks too dark and depressing for words; midseason science-fiction adventure V looks simply sensational (I think ABC should launch it in the fall, straight out of a massive push at this summer’s Comic-Con); and the new Patricia Heaton comedy The Middle (which seemed to have a wacky Malcolm in the Middle vibe) has more obvious potential than the Kelsey Grammer vehicle Hank, the Courteney Cox sitcom Cougar Town and the aforementioned Modern Family. My early take on Modern is that it is destined to be one of those high quality shows about which everyone will say, “It should be on HBO.” That’s a compliment, if not a vote of confidence. Fingers crossed.
Would my impressions about any of these shows be any different had I been there in person? I’ll never know. More to the point, does it matter? All of the networks are posting for early public consumption the same clips on their Web sites that they are showing advertisers and the press, and they trust this will result in the building over the summer of more word of mouth than ever before. That may very well happen, but has anyone asked, What if that word of mouth isn’t so great?