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Upfront Rundown: The Big Trends

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The 2008-09 upfronts are ancient history, except for the actual selling the ads part. Here’s a rundown of some of the major trends we saw last week.

* How Do We Pay For This Stuff? There was a sharp, networks-wide acknowledgement of the fact that fewer people are watching live, primetime TV; consensus that this will mean the conglomerated networks will have to rely on ad sales and cross-promotion from other parts of their corporate empires (online, radio, etc.), as well as more “sponsorships” and the like to make up for it; and the implicit message that no one yet knows quite how, or if, it will work to reach consumers and make up the lost ad revenue. Further complicating the situation, as came up repeatedly, is that—thanks to DVRs, downloading and streaming—we don’t have that great a sense of (1) just how many viewers are watching any given show and (2) how many of those are watching / paying attention to ads. So the networks (and presumably the advertisers they are negotiating with) are trying to come up with new measures of audience other than straight Nielsens—and, of course, trying to define those terms to their advantage. Bottom line: it will get tougher and tougher to determine exactly what is a hit, and what a hit is worth.

* Nothing. Literally—in the sense that there’s simply less new product being unveiled for fall, owing to development disruptions from the writers’ strike, at least so far—just a couple new series on each of Fox, ABC and The CW. And of the new series that have beeen announced, many don’t have pilots, so we have even less idea than usual what they’ll look like.

* Less Reality. This is sort of a surprising one, since you might think that the networks would respond to the previous problem by debuting more reality shows; but only a couple new ones are scheduled to appear so far. Of course, that’s one thing that can change quickly.

* Remakes. NBC is remaking Knight Rider, ABC is remaking Cupid, The CW is remaking 90210. Then there are several remakes of overseas series and formats: Worst Week, Kath & Kim, Life on Mars, etc. On the bright side, at least the unoriginal programming isn’t hiding the fact that it’s unoriginal this year.

* People Are Afraid of Science. Obviously, the dystopian idea that science is evolving beyond humankind’s control is an old one in sci-fi, and we have the Japanese monster movies to prove it. But among the previews we’ve scene, there’s a definite thread of pessimism about advances in biological science in particular, with the plots of Fringe, Dollhouse and Eleventh Hour all seeming to turn on the dangers of playing God through things like cloning and DNA manipulation.

So what am I eager to see so far? Fringe and Dollhouse, as well as Mitch Hurwitz’s animated Sit Down Shut Up, from Fox; the 90210 remake (mostly for its producers’ Freaks and Geeks’ pedigree); and a couple of NBC’s shows (e.g., Kath and Kim with Molly Shannon), though, since they were picked up without pilots, that interest is based on little more than the title and the premise. Anything else get your attention?

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