TV Networks Hope To Lure Advertisers At Annual 'Upfronts'

May 19, 2016
Originally published on May 19, 2016 4:38 pm

There's an old adage in the television biz: stars don't make TV, TV makes stars.

Perhaps that's why seeing Late Late Show host James Corden face a Carnegie Hall audience packed with CBS advertisers on Wednesday, dancing and singing his way through a parody of the hit musical Hamilton, felt so appropriate.

Corden wasn't widely known in America until he took over The Late Late Show last year and his carpool karaoke segments turned him into a viral sensation. As he twisted lyrics from the hit musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton into jokes about selling ads — "We just want your Hamiltons," he rapped at one point — Corden became a symbol for how TV can turn a fresh spin on an old story into serious money.

Corden's performance was part of a series of big budget presentations, cocktail parties and schmoozy get-togethers that fill network TV's upfront week, where broadcasters roll out trailers for their new shows next season and ask for an estimated total of $9 billion in advance sales for commercials.

There's always a tension here: Broadcasters are caught between their need to look like they're presenting the future of TV in a world filled with Netflixes and Hulus, and advertisers' needs for predictable, low-risk places to spend their ad dollars.

Fresh concepts work best. That's why a show like Fox's Empire, filled with up-and-coming talent on a show developed by an executive producer who hadn't created a TV show before, could emerge as last TV season's biggest hit.

But it is tougher to sell a new concept than a familiar one, and easier to hype big stars than rising ones. So there's lots of talk at this year's upfronts about new takes on old series like 24 and MacGyver, along with new shows featuring Ted Danson, Matt LeBlanc, Geena Davis and Kiefer Sutherland.

After a few days soaking up the spin in Manhattan, here's a few trends which stick out:

Remakes and Reboots Rule — But Why? There's a long list of new shows coming next TV season that are updated versions of old movies or TV shows. CBS has MacGuyver and Training Day, The CW has Frequency, Fox is redoing 24, Prison Break, The Exorcist and Lethal Weapon, while NBC is trying Taken and a version of the Wizard of Oz called Emerald City.

The problem: many similar attempts to revamp old franchises failed last TV season. ABC canceled The Muppets after one embarrassing season and moved its all-black take on Uncle Buck to summer. CBS canceled its version on Rush Hour and hasn't yet figured out what to do with a series based on Limitless. Fox dumped Minority Report, while NBC canceled Heroes: Reborn and never aired its much-hyped reboot of '90s sitcom Coach.

There have been some successes. Fox's revival of 24 with original star Kiefer Sutherland worked, as did its return to The X-Files. But both of those shows were limited series created as special events. Of course, when a network owns the intellectual property it's reviving, as CBS does with MacGyver, the motivations become clearer.

"There is a great interest in the character of MacGyver, and the idea of MacGyver," said Glenn Geller, CBS's new entertainment president, noting that the reboot's executive producer also rebooted Hawaii Five-O for CBS back in 2010. "Individual titles ... it's hard to say ... I don't think you can lump everything into one example or genre and say it's not working. It depends on the individual shows."

In a fragmented TV landscape filled with new shows, powerful brand names are important. But it gets tougher to make the case that you're focused on TV's future, when your broadcast schedule is filled with names from TV's past.

Guys Take Over at CBS. On Wednesday, the network revealed eight new shows for the next TV season — seven of them feature men as the lead characters, including a revival of the old "schlubby guys with hot wives" comedy trope in series featuring Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc. This also comes in a year where CBS ended The Good Wife after eight seasons, moved Supergirl to The CW and passed on developing a Nancy Drew series.

They do have one new show planned for midseason featuring Katherine Heigl and Laverne Cox, but given the imbalance of women in TV and film roles already — and that women typically watch more TV than men — this turn toward men seems odd.

Time Travel and Tech Billionaires. Every TV season it seems the networks jump on the same stories at the same time. This year, ABC, The CW, Fox and NBC all each have high-profile series in which time travel plays an important part — from ABC's Time After Time, a drama about H.G. Wells traveling to the present to chase Jack the Ripper, to Fox's Making History, which feels like a TV version of Hot Tub Time Machine.

There are also two series about tech billionaires saving the world. Fox's APB centers on a tech billionaire who takes over a Chicago police precinct, using an app, his fortune and unconventional methods to save the day. In Pure Genius, a billionaire creates a cutting-edge hospital to save the day.

Both feel a little like Tony Stark-meets-The Social Network; another case of network television trying to look like it's facing forward, when it's really rehashing the recent past.

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After just one season, CBS canceled its heavily promoted series "Rush Hour," an adaptation of the movie franchise by the same name. But never fear, there are other remakes coming to the small screen this fall, "The Exorcist" and "Lethal Weapon." Welcome to the TV Upfronts. That's the annual gathering where broadcast networks reveal their new shows to advertisers in hopes of seducing them into buying commercials.

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans is in New York amid the star-studded presentations. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: What are you seeing there that excites you about what's coming this fall?

DEGGANS: Well, at this point, you know, all we're seeing is these two and three-minute trailers that the networks put together. And of course, they can make anything look good. I'm still mad because they got me excited about "The Muppets" series with this great presentation last year. And then when the show debuted, it was so terrible it barely lasted a season. It just got canceled. But ABC has a dramedy that looks interesting called "Speechless" with Minnie Driver as the mother of a son with special needs.

And he's played by an actor with cerebral palsy. Fox is reviving "24" with an African-American star, Corey Hawkins, from "Straight Outta Compton." And we got another new show coming to Fox, "Shots Fired," that looks like it might be about the investigation of a black police officer who kills a white person. So that's all interesting.

MONTAGNE: OK then, well, let's talk about the other two network starting with NBC.

DEGGANS: So there's not much going on there. NBC's got three new fall shows, including this comedy called "The Good Place" with Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. And they only ordered about 13 episodes as opposed to the traditional 22 or 25 episodes, which networks are doing more this season. You know, the networks, they can't air reruns anymore. People would rather watch old episodes by streaming or watch them on demand. So the networks have to order more shows, and they tend to feature those shows in midseason, not in the fall.

MONTAGNE: And CBS, which is the number one network, will it stay on top from what you've seen?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, what's interesting is CBS has had to deal with people making fun of how old their viewers are. Jimmy Kimmel made fun of them that way. And Seth McFarlane made fun of them that way here in New York at presentations by ABC and Fox. But what's interesting is that they're also number one in viewers aged 18 to 49. That's a younger demographic, and that's a demographic that advertisers love. That's very important.

So this fall, they're going to try to stay on top. They're going to focus more on comedy. They've got these new shows with Kevin James, Matt LeBlanc, Joel McHale. And the one thing you'll notice about all those names, is that all those people are guys. And they're all white. And I asked the new president of entertainment at CBS about this. And he pointed to a midseason show called "Doubt" that have Katherine Heigl in it.

It has Laverne Cox, who will be the first transgender actress to play a transgender character on network television, and Dule Hill, an African-American actor. But it almost feels like they put all their diversity in one show. And then, of course, they also will have this version of the movie "Training Day." You'll remember Denzel Washington played a corrupt cop in the movie. Well, Bill Paxton, a white actor, is going to play that role in the TV show. So it's kind of interesting what they're doing there.

MONTAGNE: Well, "Training Day" gets us back to these movies being turned into TV shows. Again, "Lethal Weapon" and "The Exorcist." What's up with that?

DEGGANS: Well, the Upfronts are always balancing this tension between fresh, new ideas and safe concepts that have high brand recognition. I mean, the networks are selling advertising time. And they're trying to get $9 billion out of advertisers. So you don't spend that money on untested show concepts or actors the public doesn't know. Fox's "Empire" is a great example, though, of something fresh and new that just came out of nowhere and was a big hit.

And that's what really works on television.

MONTAGNE: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks very much.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.