How the Upfronts Sparked Changes in Three U.S. TV Nets

Desperate Networks (2006, Doubleday, 404 pages, U.S.$26.95), by The New York Times television reporter Bill Carter, is a behind-the-scenes look at the machinations leading up to the 2005 advertiser upfronts in New York — where there was an unusual predicament: ABC had the hits, CBS was a close second, and NBC was scraping the bottom of the ratings barrel.

Carter weaved a complex but easy-to-follow history of network television leading up to early 2006. He focused mainly on the 2004-2005 television season, which he described as "a watershed for network television, marked by sudden upheavals that rocked the business." Carter explained that in order "to understand the fate of each network" that season, it is important "to track back where and how" the hits came.

Stephen J Davis

By "hits," Carter means mainly ABC's Desperate Housewives and Lost, but also CBS's CSI franchise and Survivor, and Fox's American Idol — series that, over time, shifted the balance of power away from NBC, toward ABC and CBS, and changed the face of network television.

For 20 years, NBC ruled the roost with a stable of high-quality, multi-camera sitcoms: Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, Friends, Will & Grace, Frasier; and top dramas: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Law & Order, ER. But by the 2005 upfronts, NBC was suffering through its lowest ratings ever, with aging series and failed “newbies” from the last upfronts banished from the new schedule.

NBC couldn't seem to find new a hit, and, according to Carter, within the company "fingers were being pointed at [NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff] Zucker . . . for milking old NBC hits" dry. Having failed to deliver on the promises made to advertisers at the previous year's upfront, NBC had no choice but to admit its mistakes: "'We totally get it,' Zucker told the advertisers. 'We did not have the season we told you we'd have.'"

In discussing NBC's rise and fall from power, Carter noted that NBC still has a hold of the top ratings in two non-primetime time periods: early morning and late night. Carter's previous book, The Late Shift, focused on the late-night timeslot, and in Desperate Networks, he explored new developments, particularly, NBC's announcement that Conan O'Brien, the current host of Late Night, will replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show in 2009.

Illustrating how late-night programming affects primetime dominance, Carter explained that NBC secured O'Brien's 2009 move in 2005 so that he would not accept other possible offers from Fox or ABC for a late-night show that would compete with Leno's and CBS's David Letterman's. NBC feared that, "with the network losing ground in primetime, maybe Conan would give Jay and Dave a run for their money right away if NBC let him go." According to Carter, with his primetime schedule failing to re-ignite viewer loyalty for NBC, Zucker was desperate to keep the non-primetime day-parts as stable as possible.

In the mornings, NBC's Today had consistently won the ratings battle against ABC's Good Morning America and CBS's Early Show — and is still on top, even though it suffered a few close calls in 2005 when GMA altered its format, and got a boost from having its own network's primetime Housewives stars on as morning guests.

Jeff Zucker used to run Today ("the most profitable [show] in television, taking in more than $250 million a year,"­), and Carter gave much attention to Today and its significance in Zucker's life. When Zucker was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1996, he scheduled "his chemo sessions for Friday afternoons in order to work most weeks uninterrupted." Zucker's endurance paid off: after his treatment ended, "Today began beating the second-place Good Morning America on ABC by as much [sic] as 2 million viewers a day, the widest margins ever."

Katie Couric is also discussed for how she embodied the CBS-NBC rivalry. After news anchor Dan Rather's erroneous 60 Minutes report on President Bush's National Guard service (or lack thereof) was exposed as being based on unverified documents, Rather retired and several top CBS News executives were fired. This left a spot open for a new evening news anchor, and CBS Corp chairman Les Moonves had his eye on Couric, whose contract at NBC would be up in May 2006.

Desperate Networks was written before Couric announced, in April 2006, that she had accepted Moonves' offer to be the new sole anchor of the CBS Evening News. Nonetheless, Carter described the long process by which she was wooed and, in discussing the topic, ended with, "'She's gotta weigh all that,' said one of [Couric's] NBC colleagues, who nevertheless concluded that Couric was likely to leave NBC in May."

Much of the book's attention is given to ABC's hit Desperate Housewives and its long, hard trek to the small screen. Marc Cherry, a former show runner for The Golden Girls, created the series after years of not being able to find work. Everyone who read the script loved it, and yet the series was passed on by Warner Brothers studio, Lifetime Television's development team, and NBC's development team before finally finding a home at Disney-owned production studio Touchstone and its sister company, ABC.

Housewives turned out to be an instant hit for ABC, and just in time: "by the summer of 2003, a kind of fatalism pervaded the gloomy halls of ABC Entertainment. Nothing the network added to its schedule, whether good . . . bad . . . or ugly . . . had been able to ignite even a flicker of a spark."

But when Housewives premiered on Sunday, October 3, 2004, the numbers didn't lie: it "scored a nine rating in the 18-to-49 audience, a number which was about three times ABC's overall primetime ratings average for the previous season." Upon hearing the good ratings, Marc Cherry — who the year before was unemployed, had $79,000 embezzled from him by his agent, and was living off a loan from his mother — asked, "'Good, we'll be in the top ten, right?'" A member of his production crew and longtime friend, Joey Murphy, explained to him, "'Marc, we're going to be the No. 1 show.'"

Carter was careful to give a balanced portrayal of the industry. He gave near equal space to CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox executives, their schedules and strategies, their errors and their successes. He tried to be impartial, but it seems that he is more fond of Moonves than he is of Zucker, more so of Lloyd Braun (the former ABC Entertainment chairman who came up with the idea for Lost) than he is of ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson and equally impressed with the very different accomplishments of Marc Cherry and Mike Darnell, head of Reality at Fox (and the man behind Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire and Who's Your Daddy?).

Carter provided a layered story of a small group of television aficionados whose professional (and sometimes personal) lives have been consumed by television — who accept their shared assignment in life: "Let's put on a show." AM