This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
It's the end of pilot season. In less than two weeks, the networks announce their picks for the fall 2007 schedule. The process which began in January with hope and optimism and a sense that the TV business really wasn't in decline, really could pull itself back up, ends in New York, at some huge venue, with the president of each network appearing before a crowd of media buyers at the big ad agencies selling the upcoming fall season. They call this the "upfronts," because this is when networks try to sell a lot of their ad time upfront, before the shows premiere, before the 80 to 90 percent new show failure rate kicks in.
The really poignant part of the upfronts is how they perfectly reduce the entire entertainment industry -- and, really, every other industry when you get right down to it -- to its essence: it's a person standing in front of a lot of people, trying to get them to buy something that probably won't work.
But in the meantime, back here in LA, the schedules are still being set, pilots are still being screened and focus-grouped -- nerves and composure are quickly unspooling. You might hear in the morning that your show is a lock for the fall season, that you are on the air, and that you'd better book a ticket to New York and a room at the Four Seasons for the upfronts. You might hear later, after lunch, to unbook the room and the ticket. That your pilot didn't do so well at its final screening. Then, in the afternoon, you hear from someone else that the first call was mistaken, that your pilot was never ever really in contention, but now, after its final screening, it suddenly is. So book your ticket.
It's mostly agents, by the way, who do this kind of information churning. The big ones usually have a lot of projects at each network, and so they tend to trade tidbits and gossip all day -- in the absence of any real news, fake news gets interesting -- and feed items to the trades, which then get passed around again as news. They call you up and say something like "Here's what I know," which has the kind of authoritative, slightly hedged tone people use when they don't know anything, think you know something, and are quickly unraveling, mentally, like a rat in a coffee can.
Once, a year or two ago, I had a pilot in contention for the fall season, and heard from an agent in the morning that we were on the air -- he even knew our timeslot -- only to hear at 7PM that night from another agent that we weren't, emphatically, on the air, only to read the next day in Variety that we were a "hot" pilot with a "lock" on the schedule, which was really day-old news, from the first agent, but it meant a lot of phone calls from people congratulating us, meaning we then had to tell each one of those people that no, actually, we weren't on the schedule, that things changed. But by the end of that day, the Variety mention had created a momentum of its own -- something like an echo-chamber effect -- so we really didn't know if we were hearing new good rumors about our pilot based on information unrelated to the Variety article, or old good rumors about our pilot, based on information that preceded the Variety article. So we ended up irritating a lot of agents by asking them when, exactly, they heard what they heard -- you know, to create a kind of rumor timeline -- so that we'd know if the good news we were suddenly hearing was real good news -- well, there wasn't any real news, so reliable new good rumors or old good rumors which had already been contradicted.
It ended up with us, in New York, at the Four Seasons. "Here's what I know," an agent said to me, as I walked up the steps into the hotel bar, "you're here for nothing."
By that time, of course, I knew that already. Landing at JFK, turning on my phone, it beeped and buzzed with 5 hours worth of delayed information, all of which told me the same thing: our pilot was dead. So I was here for nothing. Except, you know, to mess with an agent's head.
"Wow," I said to him. "I've heard different."
"Really?" he asked.
"Really," I said. "Here's what I know…"
And then I just…made some stuff up. Some of which, it turned out later, was true.
Well that's it for this week. Next week, we'll sit in the room. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.