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What Is Upfronts Week, Anyway?: 5 Questions Answered

The limited information of upfronts week: This is John Stamos in the new comedy <em>Grandfathered</em>, coming to Fox. In it, he apparently hangs out with this baby!
Jennifer Clasen
The limited information of upfronts week: This is John Stamos in the new comedy Grandfathered, coming to Fox. In it, he apparently hangs out with this baby!

What's upfronts week, anyway?

Upfronts week is when the broadcast networks, in this order and in general, (1) make final decisions about canceling or keeping existing shows, (2) unveil their schedules for the fall and spring seasons, and (3) present their new shows to advertisers to kick off their ad sales. In other words, "Look at this beautiful show! Wouldn't you like to put your beautiful commercial right between the first and second acts?"

What do we know about new shows at this point?

Sometimes, we know quite a bit about who's making them. Sometimes, we've seen reports about them. Usually, we see some sort of "sizzle reel" (it's usually something like a trailer with more overt hyping). But as to whether they will be good or not, educated guesses are all you're going to get. And those educated guesses are only kind of educated. We really, really, really don't know very much, particularly quality-wise.

Can I at least look to the show's pedigree for a guide to what I should expect?

Only if you are very, very careful about what constitutes a pedigree.

A network, in promoting a show, will attribute it to the person whose name gives it the most juice. ("Juice" is a vile but useful term that's like "buzz" but even a little more disgusting.) This is so despite the fact that there are a lot of different roles that a proven, powerful maker of television can have in a new show.

The best example is Shonda Rhimes. Grey's Anatomy is actually a show that Shonda Rhimes makes. So is Scandal. How To Get Away With Murder, however, is a show she sort of ... shepherds. It has its own creator, Pete Nowalk, who worked for Rhimes on Grey's and Scandal, so her fingerprints are on the show in a couple of important ways, some artistic and some pragmatic. The upcoming ABC show The Catch is more like How To Get Away With Murder than the other shows in this regard, but you'll see it announced as "another Shonda Rhimes show." ABC is calling it another Shonda Rhimes show for marketing reasons, and it is kind of true, but she herself wants you to know it's not hers in the same way as her two currently airing babies. This show is being made by her company, Shondaland, but it's not her show.

The same thing happened this year with the CBS show, now canceled, called Battle Creek. It was based on a script written (and not pursued by a network) more than ten years ago by Vince Gilligan, who later headed up Breaking Bad. Because of the power of the Breaking Bad affiliation at the time of last year's upfronts, Battle Creek was promoted as Gilligan's show (and it's still often referred to that way), despite the fact that he didn't really seem to have anything to do with it beyond the original notion. In fact, talking to critics last summer, he called it "a show I'm real proud of from more of a spectator point of view." His time is spent on Better Call Saul, while Battle Creek was run by David Shore, the creator of House. It's not false to say it was Gilligan's show, exactly, but anyone who figured Breaking Bad was a useful hint about what to expect would have been misled.

Add to that the fuzziness of writing versus producing versus showrunning and the fact that people often don't even know what everyone's role will be, and it's very important not to develop pedigree fog at this time of year.

What can I actually learn about the state of television from following upfronts week?

You can learn a lot about what television is trying to do. You can learn what networks are betting is the best approach. You can see trends, like the fact that NBC has only an hour of comedy on its fall schedule — an enormous retreat on the part of a network that once got so much of its power from its "Must-See" comedy lineups.

Who else should I be following this week?

If you're interested in upfronts, here are some folks who are always good to hear from:

  • NPR's own Eric Deggans.
  • Joe Adalian, who knows more about how networks schedule and handle shows than maybe any writer I know.
  • Lacey Rose of The Hollywood Reporter, whose stuff is always great and useful.
  • All-around smart people of Hitfix Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg.
  • Longtime network scheduler Preston Beckman, who's worked at NBC and Fox and is one of the only people who actually has a ton of experience working on the business side of network television who will fill your ear with strong opinions.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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