elements of guile
Discover the basic building blocks of TV's selling season
By Anthony Crupi. Published on May 14, 2018.

The modern upfront was spawned in 1962 when ABC, in a bid to create a showcase for its automotive advertisers, took the bold step of setting all of its premieres for a single week in the fall. For a long time after that, no one outside of the triangle of buyers, sellers and marketers paid much attention to what transpired during the upfront, which remained a private, effectively unaudited exchange. And while it's difficult to pin down exactly when the peculiar orgy of uninformed voyeurism that characterizes today's upfront began, it's safe to say that the trade press, Wall Street analysts and other outsiders have been fogging up the glass walls of the summer bazaar for at least 20 years.

But for a single instance in June 2005, when ABC opened the kimono on its upfront business in a press release that it subsequently filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, no reckoning of the deals that have been made and the dollar amounts pledged has been unequivocal and verifiable. For example, the increase in the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers is always expressed as an ambiguous rate of change, rather than a specific price; to say that Network X was able to command a "low-single-digit" percentage increase when the baseline rate of a year ago is unknown is to say nothing at all.

And yet the curious practice of publicizing what amounts to a something-billion-dollar stack of layaway tickets persists. Even trying to establish whether a given network has completed its upfront sales is more of a thought experiment than an exercise in laying out facts.

Which is where the science stuff comes in. In classifying the most elemental aspects of the upfront—the sellers, the buyers, the venues, the showrunners, the less-than-noble gases that cloud the negotiations—in the form of that chart you probably were forced to memorize in seventh grade, we have reduced the events of this cluttered, clamorous week to something that can be taken in at a glance. Think of it as an act of reclamation, or at the very least, a radically condensed hierarchy of the names, places and ideas that will define the week (and broadcast season) that lies ahead.

Oh, and before we head to Radio City for NBC Universal's stage show promoting its fall season, two brief taxonomic notes. As much as the rigidly defined metaphor being applied here would suggest a certain Newtonian rigor, we did take some liberties with ontology. The last time we were offered shrimp cocktail at an upfront party, we were presented with a plate of Sea Monkeys in a clot of ketchup. In this case, "shrimp cocktail" may be read as a generic for "hors d'oeuvres."

Secondly, while we took pains to clump the alkalies with the alkalies and the sales bosses with the sales bosses, not every adjacency should be interpreted as correlative. To be listed in the neighborhood of the rather abundant element Pz, or "serotonin depletion," is in no way a reflection of one's own mental state. It's Upfronts Week. We're all a bit of a mess. Have a shot of Bz and try to relax. It'll all be over before you know it.

Periodic Table of the Upfronts

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Partial Key
TV

Television is our hydrogen. It's still the most integral element in the upfront universe, and with a foothold in 119.6 million U.S. households, it's nearly as abundant as the building block of the universe.

G

Every six or seven years, someone gets the bright idea of publishing a manifesto declaring the upfront to be deader than Dick Whitman. The upfront isn't going anywhere, and one reason the convention endures is the insurance policy inherent in the establishment of ratings guarantees.

Op

See above. The flexibility that comes with the ability to back out of up to 50 percent of your upfront commitments is a not-insignificant selling point. And while you're at it, toss in Mg for good measure.

Bu

One thing to keep in mind when people toss out upfront projections in the spring is that most of the media agencies don't show their cards to the network sales execs until after the mid-May upfront presentations.

Pz

Depending on who you talk to (and who you believe), the days when buyers and sellers haggle long into the night on a big upfront deal have vanished. "Back when I was living in Connecticut I would go home on the train at 1 or 2 in the morning and get a few hours of sleep," former Discovery ad sales capo Joe Abruzzese says. "Then I'd turn right around and get back on the train to the city. And there were moments where I would have to touch my face to figure out which way I was heading. I'd say, 'Well, I'm clean-shaven, so I guess I must be on my way to work.'"

Fu

As much as things can get a little frosty between buyers and sellers, much of the alleged rancor said to inform the upfront negotiations is hyperbolic. Network sales execs and buyers don't simply butt heads for three or four weeks like those exploding helmets in the "Monday Night Football" intro; theirs is a year-round relationship. While it's not unheard of for things to get heated during a particularly knotty negotiation—and hoo-boy, the tempers on both sides!—the dynamic is less Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner than Bugs and Daffy.

Jk

Always one of the most anticipated parts of Upfronts Week, Jimmy Kimmel's lethal monologue is packed with smart, subversive observations about the often-absurd nature of the TV business. And he's not afraid to take a few jabs at his home network, ABC. Two years ago, buyers and advertisers howled in delight when he said, "Don't think of us as an old-fashioned network. Think of us as an enormous paper-shredder for you to pour $8 billion into."

A fun upfront drinking game is when you take a shot every time someone says "brand safety." Whoops, you just died of alcohol poisoning!

$p

Now that Fox has sunk some $650 million per year for the next five seasons of "Thursday Night Football," the network's entertainment programs may not have their turn on the Beacon Theatre stage until the midway point of the presentation. And why not? The NFL's massive live viewership coincides with outsize commercial impressions.

Bz

Salve of the psyche, balm of the soul.

Ad

There's "tired" and then there's "upfront tired," which by week's end means "passing out in the middle of doing something important." By the time the secret CW party rolls around on Thursday night, everyone's basically a cartoon anvil.

Common Compounds
Torporium

Slow to assemble and infamous for its seeming disinterest in breaking down into a more dynamic compound, torporium is created when the irresistible force of greed collides with the immovable object of my-client-will-kill-me-if-I-pay-that-much. Heralded by the phrase "there's not a lot of urgency in the market," torporium shares a covalent bond with purgatorium.

Disinformium

An increasingly common clustering of discrete elements, disinformium occurs whenever a useful-idiot atom latches onto a clump of a particularly unstable form of credulousness. Thrives in the ambient energy generated by sabotage and guile. Most of the distortions engendered by disinformium may be rendered inert by even a cursory examination of the SEC codex, should anyone be bothered.

Thanatosidum

A lethal, ineffable compound that causes an almost instantaneous cessation of life functions during the public screening of new series cut-downs. An adult human may actually cringe himself to death upon witnessing an accredited member of the press clapping like a sea lion at the moist theatrics of some dopey sudser. Just stop with the clapping already.

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