Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Ellen Gray: Adventures at the upfronts

NEW YORK - When NBC announced its 2008-09 schedule in early April, six weeks before the annual extravaganza known as the May upfronts, it seemed to be saying the party was over.

NEW YORK - When NBC announced its 2008-09 schedule in early April, six weeks before the annual extravaganza known as the May upfronts, it seemed to be saying the party was over.

No more would advertisers scale the mountains of shrimp that traditionally greeted those who'd sat through less-than-stirring pitches, knowing that at the end, they'd be able to get a stiff drink and maybe even their picture taken with the third lead of a racy new sitcom.

With broadcast ratings down and coming out of a strike-shortened season, the fourth-place NBC was ready to put the business back in show business (or at least to save a bunch of money), and figured the competition would follow.

But that's not quite what happened.

The CW, for instance, was awash in shrimp - you notice these things if you're unlucky enough to be allergic - and not only had Maroon 5 playing its party, but managed to turn the usual upfront event upside down by serving the drinks before the presentation.

Amazing how much better the prospects for "Gossip Girl's" second season look after you've knocked back a few suspiciously green cocktails.

ABC canceled its big advertisers-see-stars party, as did CBS (though one exec noted that as the CW's corporate sibling, the network owned half its shrimp). And while the Eye's Carnegie Hall presentation might've lacked some of the glitz of previous years, it could be argued there was more entertainment value in "Late Late Show" Craig Ferguson's riffing about outdoor advertising (and dancing as if no one were watching) than advertisers ever got from having the cast of "Jersey Boys" rush over to perform during their show's intermission.

I mean, the guy killed.

Fox, which for the first time was able to call itself America's most-watched network, rolled out the red carpet as usual Thursday night at Central Park's Wollman Rink, where even "Dollhouse" creator Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") was getting requests for his picture (though perhaps not as many as "Dollhouse" star Eliza Dushku).

Fox also tethered slightly stressed-looking cattle just outside the 55th Street exit of its City Center Theater presentation, in what was apparently an obscure reference to the J.J. Abrams drama "Fringe," whose promo clip had included a cow.

There was even an affair reportedly involving dioramas at NBC, which had tried to signal its break from the herd with April's "InFronts" but didn't want to be forgotten altogether.

No danger of that. Though ABC's upfronts warm-up guy, Jimmy Kimmel, probably had the best line, quipping that the Peacock was "calling them the infronts because they're just in front of the CW," his wasn't the only shot at the Peacock during upfronts week, where execs rarely mentioned the network by name but seemed eager to distance themselves from one or another of its ideas.

At ABC, for instance, entertainment president Steve McPherson asserted his belief in the importance of pilots and presentations - "the R&D of our business" - and said he was happy to pick up the NBC-dumped "Scrubs" (which ABC produces), since it had done pretty well despite having been in "17 time periods."

NBC this year skipped the pilot process for some shows.

He's also cautious on the product placement that NBC entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman loves.

Silverman's best known, however, for finding hits from other countries and adapting them for American television, something he'll be doing on NBC next season with a remake of the Australian comedy "Kath & Kim."

He's also not averse to outsourcing: Two of the network's new dramas, "Merlin," a co-production of the BBC, and "The Listener," a Canadian series, will first air in their own countries.

And there might even be a Silverman Effect, whether his higher-rated competitors want to acknowledge it or not.

Because while this season's No. 1 trend - other than the advent of writers with picket signs - was probably the influx of actors from elsewhere (mostly Britain) into American TV, next season it might well be the immigration of ideas, as studios here look abroad for high-concept scripts to adapt.

It's a trend that's been happening in "reality" for some time, where Britain's "Pop Idol" begat "American Idol" and the Dutch "Big Brother" begat the one we can't seem to get rid of.

Two of CBS' new scripted series - "Worst Week" and "The Eleventh Hour" - are adaptations of British shows, while a third, "The Ex List," is based on one from Israel.

ABC, which already has its own foreign flavor in "Ugly Betty," which was adapted from a telenovela by the company Silverman used to head, is remaking the BBC drama "Life on Mars."

And while it's not scripted (or no more than any other "reality" show), Fox's "Secret Millionaire" is - wait for it - based on a British series. *

Send e-mail to