Why All This TV Upfront Excitement Needs a Grain of Salt

Tuning In: May Glitz Can Fade into September Failure

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Lou Reed wasn't directly talking about TV when he wrote the words, "Don't believe half of what you see and none of what you hear," but journalists covering the upfront ought to keep his sentiment in mind.

With days to go before the big broadcast TV networks unveil their fall schedules to the public, the press is falling all over itself to report the latest sniffs of potential program pick-ups and the celebrities who might populate them. But it's important to remember that there's always lots of room for change between springtime announcements and fall premieres. Some of the rumors and even facts being reported now could wind up being dead ends by September.

With the headline "NBC Pins Hopes on a Prime-Time News Show," The Wall Street Journal yesterday breathlessly trumpeted a scoop that NBC was considering putting on a one-hour news program led by Brian Williams this fall... or maybe not, the newspaper explained lower in the piece. A follow-up by The New York Times discovered that the proposed show has no staff assigned to it yet -- including Brian Williams! Never mind.

Today the media covering media are foaming at the mouth at the news, now confirmed by CBS and Warner Bros. Television, that Ashton Kutcher is joining "Two and a Half Men," the CBS sitcom that is such an important building block for the Tiffany Network, both for the ad dollars it brings in as well as the boost it gives to CBS's Monday-night lineup. What the media outlets mostly fail to ask, though, is whether advertisers or fans feel Mr. Kutcher has what it takes to give the show the ratings it has enjoyed for the past several years. We think he will for at least one or two weeks, but we're not so certain after that .

On the whole, it's hard to believe anything you hear, particularly around upfront time. And with good reason.

Last year during its upfront, for instance, NBC trumpeted a new comedic anthology series, "Love Bites," as its big Thursday-night linchpin. Where others showed dramas at 10 p.m., NBC executives said, their network would go for the funny bone -- and skew female to boost. Stealing an idea from ABC, which in 2009 showed an entire episode of "Modern Family" to advertisers at an upfront presentation to great acclaim, NBC unspooled a segment of "Love Bites." The reaction was not the same. It never made the fall season; it's now scheduled to debut this summer.

At a 2003 upfront meeting, ABC trotted out the stars from the David E. Kelley legal drama "The Practice" to welcome the show for another season. Within days, however, the network decided to gut the show's cast in a cost-cutting maneuver -- including star Dylan McDermott. "The Practice" didn't last much longer.

Fans can be just as fickle. Just because the show sounds amazing to them in May doesn't mean it looks so good in September. Keep in mind the recent example of "Lone Star," a Fox drama that the network was quite keen on last spring and viewers seemed to anticipate as well. Then a competitive Monday-night lineup split fans' attention -- to the detriment of "Lone Star," which was cancelled within weeks of being launched.

Ad buyers, perhaps unsurprisingly, actually tend to remember these past incidents pretty well. They know there's no guarantee that what the networks promote during their glitzy presentations next week will either show up in the fall or perform as hoped. That's partly why most upfront ad commitments come with an option to pull money out, or "re-express" the dollars invested in a network's schedule. The people who cover the TV business ought to bring some skepticism to this time of year as well.

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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads on TV and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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