CBS once again emerged as the class act of Upfront week.
After a brief stumble in 2008, when the network stripped its presentation down to near-ABC proportions and cancelled its traditional after-party, the No. 1 broadcaster was back in fine form last Wednesday, informing and entertaining its audience of advertisers and journalists at Carnegie Hall in grand style. (It also revived its post-presentation party in a new locale, the nightclub Terminal 5, which wasn't nearly as conducive to relaxed conversation as longtime CBS hot spot Tavern on the Green, but we don't need to complain about such things while the recession continues to compromise so many treasured media traditions.) Other networks settle for simply announcing their schedules, introducing new series and discussing the ways in which they want to do business with media buyers and planners. CBS does all of these things, but it also effectively reinforces its position of industry leadership and the value of its brand in a strategically upbeat manner.
A network's Upfront presentation is the one opportunity it has during the year to put everything out there and demonstrate to advertisers why they should want to buy time on its schedule. At the same time, it can thank those advertisers for their business during the previous season, gear them up for the season to come and send out a first wave of publicity and promotion for its future programming through the dozens of journalists scattered throughout the audience. CBS this year fired on all fronts, filling Carnegie Hall with energy and enthusiasm and certainly getting the most for its Upfront presentation dollar.
There wasn't a misstep or a missed opportunity from start to finish, beginning with brief but memorable remarks by CBS Corporation President and CEO Leslie Moonves, who brushed aside broadcast doomsayers by declaring, "Despite what you may have heard, flat is not the new up. At CBS up is the only up!" He then took a shot at certain CBS competitors by adding, "There's a difference between the model being broken and not being able to find any hit shows for years!" Moonves set the tone for the show that followed, which seemed as much a celebration as a presentation. Established network stars Simon Baker (The Mentalist), Laurence Fishburne (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) and network newcomer LL Cool J (from the NCIS spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles) appeared on stage to excitingly promote their shows, bringing out the best in CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler (or was it the effortlessly outgoing Tassler who brought out the best in them?). LL Cool J let fly with a performance of his classic Mama Said Knock You Out that shook the floor and had the audience on its feet, hands in the air, waving like kids at an American Idol taping.
It didn't hurt that the new shows CBS unveiled looked to be developed and scheduled not simply as companion series to those already on the network's air, but as programs of strong interest to the CBS audience. Final judgments cannot be made until complete episodes are screened, but the clips shown on that dazzling high-def screen suspended above the stage suggest that the network will have two instant winners in the legal drama The Good Wife (starring Juliana Margulies) and the NCIS spin-off. The sitcom Accidentally on Purpose would seem to be compatible with the comedies it will join on Monday night, though I don't think its star, Jenna Elfman, is as hugely popular as the network thinks she is. Conversely, relative newcomer Alex O'Loughlin (late of Moonlight and most recently seen in an unforgettable guest turn on Criminal Minds) would appear to be as popular as any veteran television star, but the series CBS has crafted for him, a medical drama titled Three Rivers, looks about as original as Fox's summertime House clone, Mental.
Meanwhile, some of that CBS magic rubbed off on its little half-sibling, The CW, which also mounted a very effective Upfront show. Having returned to its former home in the side theater at Madison Square Garden after a bizarre detour last year to a tent at Lincoln Center that was memorable for its apple martinis and holograms, if not its message, The CW put on a terrific little presentation that included so many stars from so many of its series that it rivaled celeb-centric Fox. Indeed, The CW opened its presentation with the most effective appearance by any star at any Upfront presentation this year, as Ed Westwick of Gossip Girl, in character as smarmy young billionaire slime-ball Chuck Bass, took to the stage and encouraged advertisers to join him in investing in the network. "We're going to sow the seeds of this network's delectable fruit," he said. "There is no doubt The CW is a must buy. I'll bet my ascot on it."
CW Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff sometimes looked like a kid playing with a new toy as she repeatedly slid her hand across a monitor to her right that controlled graphics on a larger screen to her left, but she made clear the network's mandate to attract empowered young women. The parade of pretty young stars across the stage did much to reinforce the network's potential. Referencing The CW's target demo, Ostroff advised, "Your brand is no longer what you say it is – it's what they say it is."
That's somewhat sad, but in The CW's case it's totally true. Accordingly, the network has jettisoned virtually every program on its schedule that does not target chatty, wired, self-involved young females (WWE wrestling, African-American comedies, Jericho reruns) and replaced them with such likely girl-magnets as The Vampire Diaries (based on the books about a teen in love with two Twilight-handsome vampire brothers), The Beautiful Life (about young models navigating their industry) and a continuation of the long-gone and not-missed Beverly Hills, 90210 spin-off Melrose Place that includes among its characters the late Sydney Andrews, who violently died on screen during a later season of the original show. (How will they get around that one?) The CW also unveiled an especially promising drama for midseason titled Parental Discretion Advised.
All in all, it was a simple but strong presentation of a sturdy schedule filled with seemingly solid shows. It's a shame there wasn't a luncheon afterwards, because the younger members of the advertising industry and the consumer journalists in attendance were ready to pounce on all that young CW flesh.
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This post originally appeared at JackMyers.com.