Jimmy Kimmel's lacerating dissection of the industry has become an annual highlight of the week when television's biggest networks reveal programming plans to advertisers. This year he nailed the pie-eyed suspension of disbelief that characterizes each sales job.
"Remember those shows we were so excited about last fall?" Kimmel said at the ABC session. "We canceled all of them. And yet here you are again. I think you might have a gambling problem."
Big laughs, perhaps from the hint of recognition.
Of the 18 new series that debuted last fall on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, six survived to make this coming September's schedule _ a batting average of .250. Take away the relatively stable CBS, and it's three out of 13. That doesn't even count shows that appeared in midseason and are already history, such as "The Paul Reiser Show" and Matthew Perry's "Mr. Sunshine."
And yet, the dance begins again. While the ways to experience television have changed dramatically over the past decade with DVDs, digital video recorders and Internet streaming, the brutally inefficient ways of making it have not. There's little incentive to alter things, judging by predictions for this year's "upfront," the mad scramble to spend billions of dollars on advertising for next season.
The $8.5 billion hauled in by broadcasters last spring will almost certainly be topped, said Jack Myers of the industry newsletter Jack Myers' Media Business Report.
Big spending sectors such as the auto industry are expected to buy more commercial time. Advertisers these days have better access to research telling them that TV is their most efficient way to get their message across, Myers said.
Perhaps sensing this, NBC's new management had a turn-back-the-clock vibe in its presentation. After years in which the network touted new content delivery systems, Comcast-appointed NBC executive Ted Harbert got a big hand by promising his audience "a little less reinventing the wheel" and more attention to broadcasting basics.
The week had its usual displays of competition, snark and a whole lot of laugh tracks _ with a few clear trends emerging.
It may seem that every amateur singer who wants to jump on stage in front of cameras will be getting the chance. "American Idol" isn't going anywhere, of course, and now Fox will have Simon Cowell's "The X Factor" in the fall. Desperate for success, NBC has made "The Voice" a central building block after a couple of strong weeks.
"Some critics say we're ripping off `American Idol,'" NBC's "Saturday Night Live" star Seth Meyers joked. "To which I say, `If you have a better idea, we'd like to hear it.'"
Kimmel's take on "The X Factor": "This is the best idea since 2002. It's like `American Idol' meets a mirror."
If it works _ and executives are confident about that _ it's a game-changer for Fox.
ABC's "Modern Family" breathed new life into the sitcom, and now networks consider comedy a priority. ABC is putting two comedies in a Tuesday time slot once held by a drama, and NBC is doing the same on Wednesday.
"Comedy is usually the core of any network schedule, which is why we would like to get back to that," said Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly. "Comedy was kind of anemic for a while."
Judging shows on the basis of a few minutes' highlights is dangerous, but it looks like there may be a rough period of trial and error next season.
ABC's "Work It" is about two men who dress as women to get a job; it's hard to envision the idea sustaining itself for more than 20 minutes. The big joke in NBC's "Up All Night" is new parents Will Arnett and Christina Applegate learning not to swear in front of their baby. The premise and performance of Tim Allen's new "Last Man Standing" on ABC seemed tired.
Two promising entries are Fox's sweet Zooey Deschanel entry "New Girl" and CBS' story of two struggling waitresses "2 Broke Girls." It was a good week for Whitney Cummings, who will star in a new NBC sitcom and co-produces "2 Broke Girls" with Michael Patrick King.
The week's best comic performance went to Steve Koonin, head of the Turner networks, who launched an impromptu monologue when a power surge knocked out the video at the TBS and TNT upfront. He even tried to lead the audience in rounds of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
"Our (advertising) pricing is not going to change because of this," Koonin said. "However, I think our expenses are going to go down, if you know what I mean."
Get this man a talk show!
Blame it on the vampires, but the supernatural will be big on TV next season. NBC's creepy "Grimm" is inspired by Grimms' fairy tales. ABC's "Once Upon a Time" features Snow White and Prince Charming's missing daughter. The surgeon in CBS' "A Gifted Man" is haunted by the spirit of his ex-wife. Fox's "Terra Nova" imagines a family from the future sent back to prehistoric times. A man who survived an auto accident in NBC's "Awake" finds parallel realities _ one where his wife is dead, the other where his son is dead. In ABC's super-creepy "The River," a family investigates the mysterious disappearance of their wildlife expert patriarch.
Hard enough to keep the real world straight.
CBS's two new dramas featuring characters with super-powers: a woman who has almost total recall of everything that's happened in her life and a man able to predict the future fates of people through their Social Security numbers. In true CBS fashion, these powers are put to use to solve gruesome crimes.
AMC has to be flattered that both ABC and NBC have series clearly inspired by "Mad Men" that are set in the early 1960s. Both ABC's "Pan Am," featuring the defunct airline's stewardesses and pilots, and NBC's "The Playboy Club," featuring the bunnies, appear to have sleek, stylish casts and costumes. TBD: whether the stories can match up.
Nothing is more fun than networks taking shots at one another, since denigrating the competition helps your own business. But CBS's corporate honcho Leslie Moonves seemed genuinely miffed hearing that both Meyer and Kimmel joked about CBS's older audience, considered less valuable by advertisers. ("CBS is No. 1," Kimmel said. "That's mainly because their viewers can't remember where they put the remote.")
Moonves noted that CBS has done better than ABC and NBC in the youthful 18-to-49-year-old demographic.
"We're a little tired of those old people jokes," he said. "They don't work anymore. And I might venture to say, we have hotter women on CBS than on any other network."
EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org