Getting up close and personal with the upfronts

Fox's "Empire" is one of this year's big success stories.
Fox’s “Empire” is one of this year’s big success stories.

A KCRW TV Interview Roundup

In the world of network television, this week is a big one. The annual upfront presentations by all the major networks are happening at different locations throughout New York. This is the time when press and advertisers gather to listen to TV executives present their new shows and schedules for the upcoming season and encourage media buyers to make their ad time purchases for the fall right now, or “up front.”

This is also the time we learn which pilots are picked up to series and which are passed over, as well as which current shows are renewed, and which have seen their last episode. There’s lots of conjecturing that happens before the actual event, and we recently devoted an episode of our TV podcast The Spin-off to sharing predictions and potential strategies the networks will take at this year’s gathering.

News of pickups and cancellations started to roll out last week. On The Business, Kim Masters and Michael Schneider bantered about the cancelation of “The Mindy Project” on Fox, but also talked about how the show may get a second life on Hulu. Universal Television, the studio that produces the show, would love to make enough episodes to qualify for syndication. If that can’t happen at Fox, online distribution gives them another option.

Now that the upfronts are in full swing, they have already yielded weird and wonderful things like a duet of “I Will Always Love You” with Dolly Parton and NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt on piano, in anticipation of Parton’s TV movie, “Coat of Many Colors.”

There was also a live performance at the Fox presentation by the cast of “Empire,” the biggest TV hit of 2015. The hip-hop soap opera had already been renewed for another season–the only question going into the upfronts was how many episodes and when they would air. Now we know there will be 18 episodes, with the season split into two parts–one in the fall, and one in the spring. (Props to our Spin-off crew who predicted as much in last week’s episode.) This is longer than Season 1, which had 12 episodes, but short of the traditional 22-episode network show.

Earlier this year on The Business, “Empire” writer and co-creator Danny Strong told Kim Masters he thought they could do more episodes in Season 2, and now his wish has been granted. On another episode of The Business, “Empire” producer Brian Grazer cites the show as one of the examples as to why TV is more exciting and creative than film right now. He also explains that while “Empire” had a lot of things going for it before the camera even started rolling–great scripts and fresh ideas–the magic didn’t really happen until they saw everyone come together and the words come to life off the page.

Another show that’s coming back for a second season is ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first sitcom about an Asian American family in more than 20 years. When she joined Michael Schneider and Joe Adalian on the Spin-off podcast, showrunner Nahnatchka Khan hadn’t officially heard whether or not the freshman show would be renewed, so she was reluctant to talk too much about where Season 2 might go in terms of story. However, she was thrilled with the reaction the show had received and the way it had been able to gain traction with audiences, even with a crummy Tuesday night time slot. ABC hasn’t revealed its new schedule yet, but we’ll know soon whether they’re going to try the show on another, perhaps more desirable night.

Another celebrating showrunner is Julie Plec, executive producer of The CW shows “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Originals.” Much like Khan, Plec was wary of talking too much about her CW pilot “Cordon” on The Spin-off. There’s some superstition involved with talking about a pilot too soon– you don’t want to jinx your chances of getting picked up. But now she can talk all she wants– she’ll be overseeing a whopping 66 episodes (22 episodes of three shows) this coming season.

But for every showrunner popping champagne, there are many more for whom the upfronts bring unpleasant news. Cristela Alonzo is the star and creator of the ABC sitcom “Cristela,” which was recently canceled after a single season. While the show was part of ABC’s push for increased diversity on screen, it faced a tough Friday night time slot, and didn’t get much marketing from the network.

When she joined us on The Business last fall, Alonzo told us how just making a pilot for “Cristela” was the longest of long shots, so at the time, getting a series pickup felt like a miracle. It’s sad to see a Cinderella story come to an end so soon, but it’s exciting to think about what Alonzo might do next. There was some speculation that she may join “The View,” where she had been filling in as a host, but the comedian says she’s going to take a break from ABC for a while.

In other no-go’s, Neal Baer’s satire “Cheerleader Death Squad” from CBS TV studios was passed over at the CW, but he’s still got “Under the Dome” on CBS. Season 3 will premiere June 25. When Baer joined us on The Business last summer, the “ER” and “Law & Order” showrunner talked about how the TV industry has changed over the years, including the fact that a show like “Under the Dome” can now make a deal with an outlet like Amazon to make it the exclusive online provider of the show, and how that boosts a show’s overall ratings.

We’ll have a full update on this year’s upfronts when Michael Schneider checks in with The Business from New York later this week. Tune in!