A Quick Guide To The Network Upfronts: Dogs At 8:00, Ponies At 8:30

May 16, 2011

This is the week of the network upfronts. What are the upfronts? They're presentations held by the broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and the CW) where they announce their fall schedules and put on marketing displays about their new shows — all theoretically for the benefit of advertisers, though it's also a big week for critics and pundits to get their eyes on the schedules and the new stuff.

Today, NBC and Fox present, tomorrow is ABC, Wednesday is CBS, and Thursday is the CW.

You should not, under any circumstances, look to the upfronts to tell you either (1) what will be good in the fall, or (2) what will be successful in the fall. No, sirree. Critics (like me) will offer you gut reactions, and it's sort of a fun and speculative time when you figure out how the table is being set, but that's all those reactions are, and that's all you should assume they are. Why?

Well, first of all, last year at this time, the most positive buzz of the entire week, I'd say, surrounded ABC's superhero family drama No Ordinary Family -- which wasn't very good, and which was canceled. Nobody knows anything this early. The most you have is a pilot, a lot of those pilots will be redone by the time critics see these shows again at press tour in July, and even press tour predictions, while closer than upfronts predictions, are dicey. And unlike press tour, these aren't presentations where journalists can ask questions. It's just the dog and the pony at this point, without the vet on the scene to see whether they're even breathing.

Second of all, no matter what, most of this stuff will be canceled. Just mathematically speaking, it's a fact that most of the new shows are likely to fail. If that weren't the case, every network wouldn't have room to introduce hours of new shows every year. Look at last year's ABC upfronts post. Not a lot remains standing.

Even more hilarious, look at NBC's. Look at that headline. "Mounting A Comeback?" I asked, scanning a lineup that included The Event (canceled), Chase (canceled), Undercovers (super-canceled), Law & Order: Los Angeles (shot, buried and canceled), Outsourced (canceled, international-style), Love Bites (not even aired! back on the list again for THIS year! therefore not yet canceled!), School Pride (educationally canceled) and Outlaw (disbarred and canceled). Eight up, eight down. Other than midseason replacement Harry's Law and the singing competition The Voice, with which the network has seen some success, they're not bringing back anything that they brought to the table this season.

So mostly, we are gazing upon a giant cage in which a motley collection of animals is assembled, and very soon, the cage will be opened, they will all attempt to run across the highway at the same time, the vast majority of them will become roadkill, and perhaps two or three will reach the other side. When they do, you may well look at those that survived and say, "Really? The one with the two broken legs and the boulder tied around its neck? That is very curious!"

If you're curious about TV and trends in TV, upfronts week is great, because it's the first glimpse you're going to get at what's coming in the fall, and somewhere in there are the things that will be interesting, successful or both. But don't take it too much to heart, because you don't want to get attached to the roadkill of the future. Just ask those of us who got attached to last year's Lone Star. Or Terriers. Or The Chicago Code ... Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.