Throughout the next week, the broadcast networks will be holding their upfront presentations, announcing their fall programs to the world at large. This used to be an event that was nothing more than a marketing tool for the television industry, and it was kept fairly hush-hush. It was a chance to wine and dine the advertisers who would be buying a year's worth of 30-second commercial spots, and trying to convince them that they needed to dedicate the bulk of their annual budget to TV instead of newspapers or magazines.
The purpose of the upfronts hasn't changed that much -- the networks are still chasing the dollars, the advertisers are still looking for the premium real estate to hang a billboard on (so to speak) -- but the currently constricted economy, combined with the competition from a rapidly building cable television industry, likely means that the advertisers are in an almost unheard-of position of power over the networks. The broadcast television companies are going to have to deliver as much of their potential audience as possible -- and as often as possible -- if they want to keep those advertisers from bolting to lower-priced cable programming.
The advantage that broadcast has over cable is still sizable; a top 10-rated cable series might draw 2 or 3 million viewers a week, a disastrous number for any show on a major network. But shows like AMC's "Breaking Bad," USA's "Burn Notice," or FX's "Rescue Me" indicate that the networks (and even premium cable outlets like HBO), no longer have a corner on the market of buzzworthy, appointment television. In fact, to some, broadcast TV looks like a dinosaur.
In order to survive, the networks must change that perception, and fast. The people running the networks will announce a large number of new programs over the coming days, aiming to find that "next big thing." That's where having a bold approach could come in handy. Nothing's guaranteed, of course, but by taking a "home run swing" or two, conceptually speaking (instead of timid moves like making cookie-cutter versions of the same old shows), the payoff for the network, the advertiser -- and the viewer -- could be tremendous.