Network TV Upfront: Despite Appearances, Happy Days Aren't Here Again

Last Updated May 17, 2010 5:51 PM EDT

To read the the quotes from network TV executives, the theme song of this year's television upfront ad sales market, which could start as soon as late this week, is "Happy Days Are Here Again." Following last year's dismal upfront, which took months to conclude and saw all of the networks take hits in ad rates, this may be a year in which the networks see double-digit increases in rates. But is the apparent, um, glee well-founded?

You have to wonder. Even as advertisers appear prepared to open their wallets again in this first post-recession upfront, it's worth noting how almost all of the big networks are going into it after ending shows that had, at one point, been cornerstones of their primetime schedules. As the network TV audience slowly erodes -- down by roughly three percent during the current season -- building cornerstones gets a whole lot harder. Here's a rundown of what you won't see on network TV next season:

  • No Jack Bauer on Fox, with the cancellation of 24. In addition, in a move that changes the entire nature of the show, Simon Cowell is leaving American Idol. While the show is said to be looking at some big-time talent to replace him, even having courted Elton John, is there really any replacing Cowell? Of course not. (The silver lining: Cowell will be returning with another talent show, The X Factor on Fox in 2011.)
  • No more Law and Order on NBC. True, the series will live in reruns and spinoffs -- including a new Los Angeles edition -- but the show that started it all, which has been averaging about 8 million viewers this season -- is going away. (Silver lining: following The Jay Leno Show debacle, the network has gotten deeply back into the pilot game, ordering up seven dramas, a one-hour comedy, adding one hour of reality TV and four half-hour sitcoms.)
  • No more Lost on ABC. This show didn't die a natural death caused by low ratings, instead ending because its creators set an endpoint and worked toward it. They see what they created as the end of the road in more ways than one. In an interview yesterday in the NYT, series co-show-runner Carlton Cuse said: "One of the nostalgic elements of experiencing the end of 'Lost' is that I also think it's the end of an era. The media landscape has changed dramatically even in the six years of this show." Noting that the show was extremely expensive to produce, he said that he doubts networks would pony up that kind of money now.
Which is why I look at the excitement that always surrounds the upfront presentations, and the predictions that rates may go up by 20 percent or more, as an attempt to hold onto a past that only still exists because so many people have a vested interest in it continuing to exist. The network TV buying process is pretty efficient, and everyone involves understands how it works.

Because the fact is that the dramatic erosion continues, and every time a Lost, or a Law and Order or a 24 gets cancelled, a little bit of network TV dies too. It's much harder to gain audience for new shows than it is to sustain viewership for old ones that permeated the national consciousness before things got quite so fragmented.

Consider that in 2002, during the second year of 24, the top-rated show for the season was Friends with a whopping 25 share. (Share is the percentage of households watching TV that are tuned into a particular show during a particular time.) Law and Order was the fifth highest rated show with a 21 share. In the last decade alone, however, the just-cancelled NBC drama lost half its audience, and is now watched by only about 8 million people per week.

So, if you're involved in network TV, get excited if you want -- even hum a happy tune. But happy days aren't here again.

Previous coverage of this year's TV upfront at BNET Media: