The periodic table of the upfronts special report tv upfront – ad age q gases componen el aire

The modern upfront was spawned in 1962 when ABC, in a bid to create a showcase for its automotive advertisers, took the bold step of setting all of its premieres for a single week in the fall. For a long time after that, no one outside of the triangle of buyers, sellers and marketers paid much attention to what transpired during the upfront, which remained a private, effectively unaudited exchange. And while it’s difficult to pin down exactly when the peculiar orgy of uninformed voyeurism that characterizes today’s upfront began, it’s safe to say that the trade press, Wall Street analysts and other outsiders have been fogging up the glass walls of the summer bazaar for at least 20 years.

But for a single instance in June 2005, when ABC opened the kimono on its upfront business in a press release that it subsequently filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, no reckoning of the deals that have been made and the dollar amounts pledged has been unequivocal and verifiable. For example, the increase in the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers is always expressed as an ambiguous rate of change, rather than a specific price; to say that Network X was able to command a "low-single-digit" percentage increase when the baseline rate of a year ago is unknown is to say nothing at all.

And yet the curious practice of publicizing what amounts to a something-billion-dollar stack of layaway tickets persists. Even trying to establish whether a given network has completed its upfront sales is more of a thought experiment than an exercise in laying out facts.

Which is where the science stuff comes in. In classifying the most elemental aspects of the upfront—the sellers, the buyers, the venues, the showrunners, the less-than-noble gases that cloud the negotiations—in the form of that chart you probably were forced to memorize in seventh grade, we have reduced the events of this cluttered, clamorous week to something that can be taken in at a glance. Think of it as an act of reclamation, or at the very least, a radically condensed hierarchy of the names, places and ideas that will define the week (and broadcast season) that lies ahead.

Oh, and before we head to Radio City for NBC Universal’s stage show promoting its fall season, two brief taxonomic notes. As much as the rigidly defined metaphor being applied here would suggest a certain Newtonian rigor, we did take some liberties with ontology. The last time we were offered shrimp cocktail at an upfront party, we were presented with a plate of Sea Monkeys in a clot of ketchup. In this case, "shrimp cocktail" may be read as a generic for "hors d’oeuvres."

Secondly, while we took pains to clump the alkalies with the alkalies and the sales bosses with the sales bosses, not every adjacency should be interpreted as correlative. To be listed in the neighborhood of the rather abundant element Pz, or "serotonin depletion," is in no way a reflection of one’s own mental state. It’s Upfronts Week. We’re all a bit of a mess. Have a shot of Bz and try to relax. It’ll all be over before you know it.