TV Networks Use Elaborate Showcase To Pitch Shows To Advertisers

Renee Montagne talks to Kim Masters, who's covering the upfronts for The Hollywood Reporter, about some of the new shows, and how the networks are faring in an increasingly competitive environment.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And this week, Madison Avenue and Hollywood come together in New York at the glitzy gathering known as the Upfronts. Television networks stage elaborate showcases presenting their fall lineups to entice advertisers to buy commercial air time. It's a market worth upwards of $9 billion.

Reporter Kim Masters is covering it for the Hollywood Reporter and she joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Good morning.

KIM MASTERS, BYLINE: Hey, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, Kim, you have attended these presentations. And before we talk about new shows that are coming in the fall, what is the atmosphere generally like there?

MASTERS: Well, this is pretty much business as usual in a lot of ways. I mean everybody talks about how ratings are declining for the broadcast networks - and they certainly are, you know, there's a lot more competition now with cable and streaming services. But we're still doing the same thing we've been doing for years here, we're going to big presentations and venues like Carnegie Hall, even though everybody feels the winds of change blowing, and really it's because the networks are still the biggest aggregator of eyeballs and advertisers really don't have anywhere else to go to reach the kind of audience they reach on the broadcast networks.

MONTAGNE: Well, the winds of change are blowing no harder than at NBC because it has had a pretty dismal decade.

MASTERS: Yes. They were in the basement. They were the punching bag for the last, I don't know, 10 years. But at this point, they're number one, very unaccustomed position for them. They've done it on the strength of "The Voice," the singing competition and they had a breakout hit last year in "The Blacklist" with James Spader, it's sort of that "Silence of the Lambs"-ish kind of drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BLACKLIST")

JAMES SPADER: (as Raymond Reddington) Agent Keen, what a pleasure.

MEGAN BOONE: (as Elizabeth Keen) Well, I'm here.

SPADER: (as Raymond Reddington) You got rid of your highlights.

MASTERS: A true bona fide hit and so it was a very unusual thing for NBC to try it out on the stage with a little bit of self-consciousness, but they repeated over and over again: we are number one.

MONTAGNE: And Kim, another thing NBC has done that's been pretty successful is to expand the idea of live programming. They did a live "Sound of Music."

MASTERS: Yeah. With Carrie Underwood. A lot of people rolled their eyes and thought "The Sound of Music" with Carrie Underwood sounds like a bad idea. And NBC is happy to point out that it was a giant hit. They are doubling down. They are going to do "Peter Pan" and then they're going to do "The Music Man." And Fox's going to copy them by doing "Grease." When it's live, it's an event. You don't put it on your DVR and watch it later, where the networks may not get as much credit in terms of the ratings. You watch it live. You make an appointment and that's the name of the game.

MONTAGNE: Well, having mentioned Fox, what about Fox? What's it doing?

MASTERS: Well, Fox had a very tough year. You know, for years Fox was dominant with "American Idol." That was a show that just slayed everything in its path. This is the year where it really swooned. You know, it was beaten by "Survivor" on CBS, which is in its 28th season and was renewed again. So Fox has to do some rebuilding. They did not get a lot of big success last year. They had "Sleepy Hollow," but a lot of other shows came and went. And I think one of the buzziest shows we've been hearing about this week is the show that they will have in the fall, "Gotham." It's kind of a prequel to the Batman story. You can see the young, young, young Bruce Wayne and Penguin and Riddler as little kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOTHAM")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) What's your name?

DAVID MAZOUZ: (as Bruce Wayne) My name is Bruce Wayne.

MASTERS: Hopefully, that will be something combined with "Sleepy Hollow" to make sort of a genre evening for Fox.

MONTAGNE: Well, you might be able to say that ABC has created a new genre - that would be the Shonda genre.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: ...with a new show from Shonda Rhimes.

MASTERS: Yeah. Shonda Rhimes will program a solid three hours of programming with "Grey's Anatomy," the very hot "Scandal" and this new "How to Get Away With Murder," with Viola Davis in the lead as a smart, tough law professor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIOLA DAVIS: (as Annalise Keating) I am professor Annalise Keating and this is Criminal Law 100, or as I prefer to call it, How to Get Away with Murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MASTERS: So Shonda Rhimes is blazing hot. And I think she's also done a lot to pioneer a change in terms of what kinds of people we are seeing on these broadcast shows.

MONTAGNE: This seems to be a trend.

MASTERS: Yes. You're seeing a lot of African-American women. Fox has a show with Octavia Spencer, you might remember from "The Help." She is in a show called "Red Band Society." She's the lead. It's about Children's Hospital and she's sort of the tough nurse with a heart of gold. And on NBC, you're going to see a show called "State of Affairs." Katherine Heigl is a CIA agent and Alfre Woodard as the black female president of the United States is trying to solve a crime with her and that's the kick off point for that show.

MONTAGNE: And finally, there is Larry Wilmore, a big year for him.

MASTERS: Yeah. Larry Wilmore, you may know him from his appearances on "The Daily Show," Senior Black Correspondent. And he also was the creator of "The Bernie Mac Show." He's going to replacing Stephen Colbert when he leaves Comedy Central to take over for David Letterman. But he is producing a show on the ABC schedule. He won't be able to stick with it for that long because he has those other duties coming up, but it is called "Black-ish."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTHONY ANDERSON: (as character) Lately, I feel in order to make it we've all dropped a little of our culture.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: (as character) What's up, Andy?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: (as character) What's up, Andy?

ANDERSON: (as character) That's not even close to Andre.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: (as character) I think it's edgy but approachable.

ANDERSON: (as character) I think it's says I hate my father and I play field hockey.

MASTERS: Of course, you have to wonder how long they can keep it up if Larry Wilmore is no longer part of the picture, but ABC is launching that too.

MONTAGNE: Kim, thanks very much.

MASTERS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Kim Masters is the host of "The Business" on member station KCRW, and joined us from New York.

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