T Dog’s Think Tank: The upfronts? Meh.

The excitement of Upfront week. The new shows. The glitz. The glamour. The parties.

But not this year. Or maybe ever again.

This year’s upfronts had about as much excitement as a Kansas City Royals-Baltimore Orioles game, and if you read the Chicago Tribune this week, you wouldn’t even know the upfronts were taking place. That’s a far cry from many years ago, when the paper’s media writers covered the event in the business section (this year’s upfront was only covered on Maureen Ryan’s blog on Chicago Tribune’s website and in an article in Tempo – and it wasn’t much.)

While industry and TV geek websites extensively covered the events (some of them you’ll find on The Sidebar of this very blog), this year’s upfronts were ignored by the mainstream media for the most part.

What is the upfronts you ask? Well, let me take you to school. The upfronts is put on by the major networks trot out their fall schedules and their stars to media buyers and advertising reps in New York (the cable nets do this a few weeks earlier.) It’s the network’s job to sell the presentation to these groups of people so they can spend their money advertising on the network’s shows. Once the dog and pony shows are over, the negotiation periods begin – which could take anywhere from several days to two weeks to complete.

Only this year, things are different.

For one, NBC decided not to do a traditional upfront presentation, opting for an “NBC Experience” instead. It announced its fall schedule several weeks early and forgoed producing expensive pilots. And of course, there was the recent writer’s strike. At its upfront presentation last week, ABC announced only two new series, and decided to bring back the majority of its programming because it was affected by the strike.

And then there is the economy. With a recession in full swing, the networks decided to cut costs and scale back (thankfully) on the lavish presentations and parties that has been the norm for the last several years. So, there was no big Ugly Betty number at the ABC upfront, or Pete Townsend performing at the CBS show this year.

But perhaps the biggest thing affecting the upfronts this year – is interest, or lack thereof. The public seems to be disinterested in network prime-time television, a situation that was dire even before the writer’s strike. And the ratings are telling us that. Or are they?

Ratings are down across the board this season for most shows, for several reasons – the writer’s strike, the rise in use of digital video recorders (DVR), increases in online viewing, more viewing choices in the average home, the ability for cable networks to roll out their original programming year-around, and on and on. The total household share of the five major English-language networks don’t even come close to a 50 household share.

So what do the nets do? Send out press releases and spin, spin, spin. The Top Model finale last Wednesday was deemed a success – with a mid-2 rating in adults 18-49. It’s sad state of affairs when a 2.3 rating in a key demo is qualified as a hit, when a 5 or a 6 was years ago.

Then there’s Gossip Girl. Never in the history of television where a show is christened a hit – and finishes behind programming on Univision. But you also have to consider other factors, like DVR use, Internet buzz, Internet downloads, and those female 18-34 demo numbers. There’s your hit. Man, how the business has changed. You have to wonder if Nielsen numbers even matter anymore. These days, it’s harder to tell the winners and losers apart.

Which brings me to my next point. Worn-out shows like According to Jim, The Bachelor, Scrubs, and many others are coming back next season, despite declining numbers. It’s now all about how much revenue a show brings in as opposed to what ratings it gets and how much it costs to make – not to mention the networks now own most of the shows they run, as well as their syndicator (thanks to the demise of fin-syn.) With this method, Nielsen numbers are somewhat meaningless. If the fin-syn rules stayed, According to Jim and Scrubs would be long gone.

And so, this year’s upfronts provided no surprises and with the possible exception of Secret Millionaire and Fringe, there is nothing that will get people back in front of the TV. The schedules are pretty much the same stuff served over with no major scheduling moves (aside from The Unit and Without A Trace airing on new nights) and no real breakthrough programming concepts. Comedies are mostly absent, with The CW bailing out on the genre almost entirely, and sending its existing comedies to the Friday Night Death Slot. And there are still too many look-alike drama and reality programs in prime-time, with both genres still saturated.

And you wonder why viewers weren’t excited about the upfronts. And they won’t be excited about the 2008 fall lineups either. When do the Orioles and Royals play each other again?

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