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'Upfronts' are changing channels

Actors Lindsay Price, Brooke Shields and Kim Raver attend the NBC Upfronts at Radio City Music Hall in May 2007 in New York City.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Original episodes of primetime TV shows have started dribbling back on the air as Hollywood's worked its way through the writers strike. Nice for you and me, but advertisers aren't all that worried about what's on now. The spots you're seeing today were bought and paid for last spring. Instead, networks and marketers are getting ready for what're called the "upfronts," when the networks tell advertisers what's on, and those advertisers plunk down $9 billion to buy time. Except the upfronts are going to be a bit different this year, post-strike, and the difference starts this week. Joe Adalian's the TV editor at Variety. Joe, good to have you here.

JOE ADALIAN: Thanks Kai.

RYSSDAL: So what is happening this week, upfront wise?

ADALIAN: Well, what's happening is the upfronts starting about six weeks earlier than normal. Normally, the upfronts happen the second week in May. All the networks get together, trot out their new shows, their stars, and try to convince advertisers to start buying time for the fall. What's happening now, though, is NBC's decided to move the process. They're going to announce their schedule this week to advertisers in New York and smaller meetings throughout the country -- Chicago, Los Angeles. The other thing that's really important is they're going to present a schedule for the entire year, through all of next summer, and that's a little bit different.

RYSSDAL: So the upfronts are usually these glitz and glam affairs in New York City and, you know, the networks rent out these big halls and they put on the whole big party thing. Why are they now pulling it back?

ADALIAN: Well, it's not being completely downsized. You know, CBS is going to still have a big showy presentation, but they're not going to have the shrimp later on at Tavern on the Green, which is a big disappointment for those of us who cover that.

RYSSDAL: Well then I'm not going.

ADALIAN: Exactly, what's the point? There's been a trend towards keeping these presentations briefer, because advertisers don't want as much razzle dazzle. They want to get just the facts, so that's going to happen, but NBC here, you know, it depends upon whom you ask. A lot of people think NBC's just sort of making a lot of noise because, hey, they happen to be in fourth place and this is a great way to get a head start on everybody else. Other people say, no, this is actually the first step in an important renovation of the process, that networks need to start thinking about year round programming, that they need to start getting advertiser input earlier in the process. That's another key thing that NBC is saying about this strategy of theirs, is that they're trying to get advertisers in on the ground floor, before everything's already done and the pilots are shot and the shows are ready. They're going to say to advertisers, "Well, what do you think about this "Knight Rider" idea we have?" and maybe get some input early on.

RYSSDAL: Do you think this is going to be a permanent change to the upfronts? I mean, they've been this way for a long time.

ADALIAN: The upfront process is pretty ingrained. Fourth quarter is still very key for advertisers and that's still what this is all about. I don't know that what NBC's doing right now is going to completely change the process. NBC hopes so, but for right now, it's just a small step.

RYSSDAL: When these advertisers go to the upfronts, whether or not it's NBC in small groups, or CBS and ABC with the whole smash, are they interested in what's going to be on Wednesday at 9 o'clock, or is it, "How do you deliver this demographic that I want to sell my product to?"

ADALIAN: I think they're much more interested in making sure the shows fit with the type of demographic they're trying to sell. They're commodities. They're not looking to fall in love with shows. They're looking to be convinced that the network has an idea of what kind of viewers are going to come to what show in which time slots, so this year, you know, we'll see. We'll see because there won't be as many clips for advertisers to look at before they buy shows. They're going to be taking much more of a leap of faith that the networks will be able to deliver the right kind of viewers.

RYSSDAL: Would we even be having this conversation if there hadn't been a strike. I mean the upfronts would've just continued, right?

ADALIAN: Well, no. NBC says, no, we were planning to change the process anyway, and NBC says this is about redefining things, and a key thing for NBC by the way, Kai, is that what NBC's really trying to do here, is they're trying to deemphasize network television, because they're still going to give a presentation in May with the other networks, but at that presentation in May, Jeff Zucker is going to bring out all the properties of NBC Universal, from USA Network, to SciFi, to Bravo, to mobile television shows that they produce. For them, it's about redefining the game, and saying the upfronts should not be about network television, they should be about what NBC Universal as a broad company can do for you.

RYSSDAL: Joe Adalian knows all this because he's the TV editor at Variety. Joe, thanks so much.

ADALIAN: Thanks a lot.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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