Battle of the Network Stars; Last Week a Real Circus Came to Town, as TV Executives Gathered in New York to Conv Ince Advertisers That the Fall Season Will Rock. Inside a Week of Blood, Sweat and Fears

Article excerpt

Byline: Marc Peyser

When you're trying to tease a couple billion dollars out of a roomful of advertisers, it helps to have a smokin' PowerPoint presentation. Last week, when Fox tried to sell its fall lineup to advertisers in New York City, its idea of exciting was asking the studiously bland Carrie Underwood to sing a tune. The folks at ABC hired a real star--Mary J. Blige--but played "Desperate Housewives" clips shamelessly while she performed. NBC's presentation was soporific; CBS's was terrific: Mariah Carey and the cast of "Jersey Boys." But it was Chris Rock, creator of "Everybody Hates Chris," who gave the crowd what it really wanted--a sales pitch without the song and dance. "We want you to buy more ads because Chris is going to be played by a white girl," he said. "You are going to see more white people this year than you have before. Sometimes they are just going to walk through, wave and say, 'Hi! I'm white'."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a peek inside the weeklong suck-up known as the upfronts. They're called that because the networks hope to entice companies into advertising upfront--that is, before the fall season starts and the corpses start floating to the surface. Each network spends a half day selling itself with slick clips, lavish parties (where you can take a Polaroid with your favorite star) and Rumsfeld-size boasts. "We've hit a gold mine here!" said NBC's Kevin Reilly. "ABC has more appointment television than anyone. Period," said ABC's Steve McPherson. When you think about it, "upfront" is a funny name for the whole affair. "Where I come from, 'upfront' means straightforward, honest," said Spike Feresten, who will host a new Fox talk show in the fall. "After watching these for the last four days, one word that doesn't come to mind is 'upfront'."

Perhaps a better word is "desperate." How else to explain Fox's hauling in the Rutgers marching band--flag twirlers and all--to punch up a sales pitch on its sports programming? The networks should be nervous, frankly. Last year advertisers paid more than $9 billion after the upfronts, but the networks didn't produce a single breakout hit on the order of "Housewives" or "Lost" or "Grey's Anatomy." And since then, streaming video, iPods and cell-phone broadcasts have become all the rage. Will traditional TV still bring home the bacon? NBC actually spent as much time bragging about video players, I-villages and broadband channels as it did hyping its new shows (which may say something about the shows). The folks at CBS touted their "brand extensions" with a commercial for the mock "Criminal Minds' Greatest Hits" album, featuring "50 Ways to Cleave Your Mother," etc.--which might have gotten a decent laugh without the syringes and knives. …