Sports Beat “Television Upfront Week & Sports”

By Lloyd Carroll

     The second week of May is when both the broadcast and the major cable networks unveil their new programming to advertisers and the media in presentations known as the upfronts. The days of everyone watching their favorite shows at the times designated by the networks is in the rearview mirror with the advent of DVR and the Internet where network websites let you watch on demand. Sports, because of they are live and the desire to watch drops considerably if the results are known, has resisted the trend of delayed watching and therefore TV executives can charge a premium to advertisers.

     NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt and NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus were beating their chests about having the top fall-rated show, “Sunday Night Football,” as well as having the broadcast rights to the 2015 Super Bowl and the 2016 Summer Olympics. The importance of the latter two sports extravaganzas is not just that the sizable advertising revenue that is generated  but that they are fantastic promotional vehicles for entertainment shows on NBC. Greenblatt announced that a special episode of their 2013 hit, “The Blacklist,” will air following Super Bowl XLIX.

     Fox did not have a great year ratings-wise thanks to the continued erosion of “American Idol,” the cancellation of “The X Factor,” and the failure of one of my favorite shows this spring, “Rake,” that starred Greg Kinnear as a self-destructive attorney. Fox is still very strong in sports with its National Football League, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR  packages. In 2015 it will be adding two former NBC properties, Major League Soccer and golf’s US Open which will have Joe Buck as its lead broadcaster.

     It will be interesting to see whether CBS’s eight-game Thursday night NFL package that will run in September and October causes any decline in ratings for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” A number of CBS’s shows will start their fall runs later than normal because of its commitment to the NFL. CBS Sports executives brought out Bill Cowher and Tony Gonzalez to mingle with advertisers at their post-Upfront reception at Lincoln Center.

     Come 2015 CBS will not be broadcasting tennis’s premier event, the US Open, for the first time since nearly anyone can remember as ESPN has now obtained exclusive rights. The Worldwide Leader in Sports brought out Douglaston native John McEnroe to come on stage at the Minskoff Theater this past Tuesday to reminisce both playing at the Open and growing up in the home borough of it, Queens.

      Mike Golic, and one-half of ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” morning show was so excited to be on the stage of the Minskoff Theater, the Broadway home of “The Lion King,” that he sang a couple of stanzas of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” Golic surprised nearly everyone with his mellifluous baritone voice. He admitted to me afterwards that he loves Karaoke and he used to entertain his teammates with song during his NFL days. Given the fact that ESPN’s sister Disney TV property, ABC, finished fourth in the ratings this year, perhaps he should host a variety show on that network.

     ESPN CEO John Skipper poked fun at Michelle Beadle’s disastrous short-lived stint at NBC Sports in which she co-hosted along with Dave Briggs (TV’s answer to Mattel’s famous doll, Ken) the now canceled 6 PM sports-pop culture show, “The Crossover,” at the Upfront. Beadle proved to be a good sport as she took the ribbing in stride.

   Michelle Beadle wasn’t the only prodigal personality to return to ESPN as Keith Olbermann poked fun at his peripatetic career. There may be other former air personalities who may be returning to Bristol according to Skipper.

     ESPN has been facing more challengers than ever thanks to the resources being poured into Fox Sports 1, NBC Sports Network, and CBS Sports Network. Despite the promulgation of competitors, they have not made a dent into ESPN’s ratings dominance. “It’s hard to get viewers for studio shows if you don’t have the rights to sports programming that people want to see. However we still worry about the competition,” Skipper told the press following the presentation.

      Comcast launched the Esquire Network last fall as an upscale answer to Viacom’s Spike TV. They may have a winner as Spike Feresten will be hosting “Car Matchmaker” in which he tries to find the right vehicle for guys. If Feresten’s name sounds vaguely familiar it is because he hosted an eponymous late Saturday show on Fox for two seasons that went up against NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Of course he wasn’t going to win that battle but I can tell you that there were many nights when his show was a lot funnier.

     The growing Hispanic market is not being ignored by blue chip advertisers as Univision, Telemundo, and Mundo Fox all had splashy presentations this past week.

      The leading Hispanic media conglomerate, Univision, as per custom, is going all in with soccer. Next month they will be the Spanish language home for the World Cup. They will be televising the Western Hemisphere’s answer to the World Cup, La Copa Americana in 2016, and have the Spanish language rights to Major League Soccer.

     Telemundo’s Mun 2 will be broadcasting the 2015 Super Bowl in Spanish. This is the first time that will happen in the United States. In the past you had to cross the Mexican border to watch it on Azteca or Mundo Fox if you wanted to enjoy “the big game” in Spanish.

     I will be writing in greater detail about the entertainment shows that were introduced during Upfront week as we get closer to the fall. Fox had two which caught my attention. Chicago-born comedian John Mulaney may very well become the new Jerry Seinfeld with “Mulaney” that boasts a cast that includes Elliot Gould and Martin Short. Rainn Wilson of “The Office” fame switches gears completely as he plays a burned out cop similar to the kind played by Clint Eastwood in “The Gauntlet” in his new show, “Backstrom.” Also playing against type is Debra Messing who plays a tough-as-nails NYPD detective in NBC’s “The Mysteries of Laura.” Think of her as Dirty Harriet.

     On the down side, NBC has too many similar foreign affairs conspiracy dramas with the worst offender being “State of Affairs” starring the supremely untalented and unlikable Katherine Heigl. Another NBC show “Bad Judge” starring Kate Lynch looks like fun but it hews too closely to CBS’s just canceled “Bad Teacher” that had Ari Graynor taking over the role of the unmotivated educator that was  made famous by Cameron Diaz in the 2011 film of the same name.

     Here is some unsolicited advice to network executives for next year’s upfronts.

    CBS should look into moving its presentation from its longtime home Carnegie Hall because it is too small to accommodate demand. If it’s unwilling to do that then they should hold a simulcast for the press at one of its many sizable Black Rock conference rooms (even ABC, which is renowned for its cold attitude towards other media, does that although they are ridiculously picky in deciding who is worthy of a visit to their West Side headquarters) and then let the press go over to its post-event reception to mingle with executives and talent.

    Memo to NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt: if you are going to have a two-hour presentation to media and advertisers from 11 AM to 1 PM then you should offer some food afterwards to attendees. It leaves a bad taste in the mouths of ad buyers and writers to offer nothing (full pun intended).

    Memo to Turner executives: If you are going to have a post-Upfront luncheon for media then you either invite all of the press or don’t hold that kind of event. No one wants to feel like a second class citizen. That kind of resentment is counterproductive.