Fox Stumbles at Upfront Presentation

Network Sales President Opens Evening With Apology

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- This year -- with almost nothing to prove and everything to crow about -- Fox's upfront presentation should have been a proud victory lap up Madison Avenue. Instead, the network stumbled, leaving advertisers and other attendees distinctly underwhelmed.
Peter Liguori
Peter Liguori Credit: Alex Berliner/FOX

Fox Broadcasting Co. had a stellar season this year: "Prison Break" broke out, reality show "Unanimous" proved to be another hit, "American Idol" grew -- again -- and the network is about to be crowned this season's champ in the all-important 18- to 49-year-old demographic for the second year in a row, this time without the aid of the Super Bowl.

Few laughs
But there was little time spent on such worthy programming highlights and too much attention to Fox Sports. Fox Sports chief Dave Hill -- who seemed a little too relaxed at the podium -- kept mispronouncing Tostitos as he talked up the brand's Fox Sports sponsorship and other network sports offerings. New Saturday night talk-show host Spike Feresten seemed as if he belonged at an open mic night, drawing few laughs with his shtick about his lack of TV experience. Mr. Feresten is, however, an accomplished comedy writer, having worked on "Seinfeld."

Even "American Idol's" Simon Cowell, without a trace of British irony, remarked, "This is the most bored audience I have seen in years." The show's host, Ryan Seacrest, appeared courtesy of a video link from California, with the two "American Idol" finalists, but even he wandered into cringeworthy territory when he tried to get Katharine McPhee and Taylor Hicks to talk about who irritated them on the show and whether anyone was sleeping together. Both seemed uncomfortable with the line of questioning. "House" star Hugh Laurie, living up to his character's sarcastic reputation, asked the audience if they were hoping the day would never end.

Entertainment president Peter Liguori made a valiant effort to hold it all together, though he admitted on stage to Mr. Cowell that he was feeling both nervous and sweaty. In between the mayhem, Fox gave a first look at some promising shows, among them "Vanished," about a senator's wife who goes missing, and "Stand-Off," about a pair of crisis negotiators.

Opens with apology
Fox sales president Jon Nesvig was statesman-like as ever, but was forced to open the evening with an apology. With the event switched to a new venue, the Armory on Lexington Avenue, Fox immediately ran into problems with crowd control. Attendees filled two lanes of traffic and the sidewalk as they tried to enter the building. Overzealous security guards, mandatory hand stamps, picture ID requests and confusing directions over where to pick up tickets led to mayhem in the atrium.

Group M chief Irwin Gotlieb, who controls what can only be described as a major chunk of upfront spending, was so infuriated by the treatment that he demanded the name of a rude security guard and told Fox reps that this was his last Fox upfront and that the network would be coming to him next year.

Unfortunately for Fox, Mr. Gotlieb was not the only disgruntled attendee. One marketer said Fox had not been respectful of people's time (the presentation started almost a half hour behind schedule) and that she had no need of seeing a clip reel of a baseball game. "I know what baseball looks like," said the woman, who declined to give her name but identified herself as a buyer who spends big with Fox. When asked if the presentation would affect her spending decisions, she said it wouldn't -- and that's all Fox needs to worry about at the end of the day.
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