Here's how it works. First come the Upfronts. The Upfronts, which usually unfold in May in New York City, are the occasions when U.S. networks and cable channels present their new shows to domestic advertisers. These matter a lot to the major networks and basic cable channels that rely on ad dollars to keep the engine going. They're not so vital to the premium cable outfits that want subscribers and prestige, not ad dollars.
Little can be gleaned from the Upfronts, apart from broad network strategies. The ad-buyers to whom the new fall shows are pitched tend to favour star-vehicles and easy-to-grasp concepts.
Next come the L.A. Screenings, usually a week or two after the Upfronts. TV buyers from around the world descend on Los Angeles; new shows are up for grabs for the right price. Mainly the sellers are studios that have pre-existing deals to make the shows for the U.S. networks, so the big money has already been spent. So it's often the Canadian broadcasters and British channels that give the L.A. Screenings buzz. The two competitive English-language markets need product, so buyers pay top dollar for the top new shows to make certain a competitor doesn't get it.
Most broadcasters in major world markets have pre-existing deals with studios, but it can be a matter of buy-one, get 50-per-cent off your next purchase. This explains why some Canadian channels end up with two hot shows they wanted and two duds they didn't really care about. Television is, as I keep saying, a racket.
What can be gleaned from the L.A. Screenings is vague – writing a big cheque to buy a show doesn't make a bad show better, let alone a big hit.
Next comes the Television Critics Association (TCA) Press Tour. That's late July/early August. A couple of hundred TV critics from the U.S. and Canada, along with reporters who cover the business of television, gather in L.A. The local media, specializing in showbiz-reporting, join in.
The cable channels, big and small, and the big networks unveil their new fall shows to the press. This can take just over two weeks, and it all happens at one hotel. It's not a "junket" – critics pay their own way, although the broadcasters try to keep us fed and watered, sometimes enthusiastically. Some realize that buying a critic a burger doesn't make their sitcom sizzle. I'm there, starting Wednesday.
The Press Tour is where the real selling of the new fall season starts. Shows are screened and the cast members and creative minds turn up to answer questions. All day, every day. Famously called "a death march with cocktails," the Press Tour is a peculiar blend of journalists' convention and sales event, with the occasional break-out of seminars about making great TV.
Cable channels open it. Some big names and big projects are unveiled. Larry David puts aside his Curb Your Enthusiasm persona to promote a new HBO movie. Funny? Stand by. Showtime has a new series, Masters of Sex, about the life and work of 1960's human sexuality researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Sexy? Stand by. Some say the Starz channel's new series The White Queen is the new Game of Thrones, but aimed at women. True? Stand by.
The networks pitch hard. NBC has The Michael J. Fox Show – let's see if he can mine his life and illness for laughter. NBC also has a reboot of the old series Ironside, starring Blair Underwood as the wheelchair-bound detective. CBS has a new sitcom starring Robin Williams and the woman-who-was-Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar. Could be a mess, could be inspired. And a drama called Hostages that, it seems, involves the President of the U.S. under threat of death.
Reports from Press Tour start later this week, in print and online. Listen, somebody has to do it. Stand by.
Drunk History (Comedy, 10 p.m.) is now on TV after being a cult favourite online for years. Now you too can see Michael Cera, Jack Black, Don Cheadle, Will Ferrell and others re-enact famous scenes from U.S. history while intoxicated. It's sobering to find that some of it is actually funny.