Tuned In

Upfronts Preview: TV Faces Its Shrinkage

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We TV critics like to pretend we’re a heartless, puppy-kicking, candy-from-baby-taking bunch, but we’re as sentimental as anyone else. So don’t be surprised if you read a bit of a melancholy streak in the this week’s coverage of the big-network upfronts, which kick off today.

As I’ve mentioned, this week’s presentations will be a diminished affair, in several ways. First, thanks to the strike, there will be less new programming to announce. Now, the upfront schedules were highly theoretical to begin with—some shows would never air, some would be heavily retooled, many would suck and most would ultimately fail. Nonetheless… there was something heady about having the network execs get on stage and preview an entire season’s worth of programming all in one day. There was an exciting, first-day-of-school feel to it (depending how much you liked school) or a Christmas-morning feel (depending how good your childhood Christmases / alternative holidays were). Now it’s more like Santa coming down the chimney and leaving you a vague promise about all the great toys his elves will be producing sometime in the next fiscal year.

Second, there will be less razzle-dazzle. Fewer of the big parties following the presentations, and the presentations themselves will be shorter and less showy. All of which, frankly, is fine by me—I’d rather drink at home, thank you very much—but all this relates to the final, big change that’s driving this year’s upfront: the growing realization that network TV is just not the big business it used to be. The audiences are smaller—markedly so this season—and many of those remaining are watching in formats that the nets are still figuring out how to monetize, from online to DVR.

None of that is necessarily bad news. Not for viewers, because the main lesson of the cable revolution has been that smaller networks and audiences mean shows that don’t have to please everybody, which in turns means more risk-taking and better shows. (Worse shows too. But with more networks putting on more different things, the best of the best has gotten better.) And not for TV critics, at least those whose jobs aren’t falling victim to the (different but related) traumas of the print and newspaper markets: because whether CBS has 30 million viewers or 10 million, whether people watch shows live on TV or time-shifted on a cellphone, the business of pop culture and entertainment is only getting bigger, if more diffuse. Even in this diminished upfront, there is something for us to write about, even if the diminishment is itself the story.

But it’s still different, and different is still a little sad, even if it’s ultimately for the best. The real thing we are seeing pass this week, with the scaling back of the huge parties and expensive network stage shows for advertisers, is TV’s sense of bigness, its expansiveness, its grandness. The networks’ lavish fests are passing, probably forever, this year, going the way of the free airline meal. And with them passes the networks’ sense—much like the airlines’—that they are big, optimistic, growing industries. Like the airlines, they are getting ever more bottom-line-driven and no-frills. And even if you always hated the airline food and brown-bagged it, once they started throwing pretzels at you, you still had to note, sadly, that something had changed.

In any case: today kicks off with NBC’s trade-show-like “NBC Universal Experience” presentation at 30 Rock, followed by ABC, CBS and Fox in order. (I’ll probably be skipping whatever little press conference The CW is planning.) There may or may not be much news, but watch this space anyway.