BROOKE GLADSTONE: Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal, even in the world of television. This week the networks showcased their fall schedules at a series of network-sponsored presentations and parties called "upfronts." While TV networks preened and promoted in the hopes of luring ad buyers to purchase advertising up front, TV critics got a chance to preview the fall season. TV Guide's Max Robbins spent the past week at the upfronts. Max, welcome to On the Media.
MAX ROBBINS: It's a pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You went to all the upfronts this week. Explain what they're like. Are they very tense events?
MAX ROBBINS: Well certainly not for people [LAUGHS] like me in the audience. These are these really lavish affairs that the network throws, and they're really there to seduce the advertising community, the press and the financial community as well that they have developed all this wonderful new programming for fall that is just going to wow the American public and make us all just jump and shout with glee.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are you jumping with glee, Max? Is this going to be an exciting television season?
MAX ROBBINS:Well, Brooke, it's spring, and hope springs eternal. [LAUGHTER] I have to say, having feasted on oh, more shrimp and-- [LAUGHS] chicken wings than I thought existed in all of New York, I don't know, there wasn't a lot this season where you said wow - I'm going to make a point of being home at, you know, fill-in-the-time, to see that show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a fierce counter-programming attack going on. They're putting the Jason Alexander Show up against Frasier?
MAX ROBBINS:I don't know. I don't think that Kelsey Grammer has much to worry about, at least from what we've seen so far. But what's interesting about that, Brooke, is how much this season the networks are really in each other's face. I mean they've taken NYPD Blue and moved it from Tuesday night to go right up against Law and Order. NBC announces they're going to put the weakest link on there, their new hit game show on a Monday night, and then boom! -- ABC moves Millionaire against it. The last couple of seasons there's almost been like a silent gentleman's agreement if you will where the networks were really into counter-programming. Brooke, you're the president of ABC and, and you say well I'm putting on a news magazine at 10 o'clock. I'm the president of NBC. I go with a drama. Here, this is really about hey -- I smell blood in the water at my network and I'm going to steal viewers away from you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's talk about ABC for a moment. They're going through some serious and infamous cutbacks right now and one thing that they announced was that they were cutting back on 20/20. It sounds like almost for a full quarter of the year, but the network honchos said this should not be seen as a sign that we're decreasing our commitment to news. Now to say something like that to me is tantamount to the pilot coming on the A.V. in the fuselage and saying there's absolutely no cause for alarm when nobody thought there was anyway.
MAX ROBBINS: Yeah. Well, I'll tell you, I think regardless of how ABC wants to spin this, the fact that they took 20/20 which for 14 years has dominated Friday night at 10 o'clock as the premiere star of ABC News, Barbara Walters, who makes more money for that network, Brooke, than - ha! - it's amazing -- that they would do this really shows the diminished value of news within the ABC network family. And I think you're going to see all sorts of things in coming months. These are not happy times for news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:A year after the NAACP protested the lack of minorities on prime time shows, now we saw mid-season last year the addition of some black characters, some black subplots but not a lot of change in the lineup. What about this year now they've had another year to mull this over. Any change in the status quo?
MAX ROBBINS: Not really. I mean when you're looking at the major networks and what they're putting on, almost all the lead characters in the new series are white.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has the downturn in the economy affected the mood at these events? Are you still getting as much shrimp as you ever were?
MAX ROBBINS:Well these affairs are as lavish as ever in terms of seducing, you know, young media buyers to spend tens of millions of dollars on these shows, so they're still putting their money there. I think where you're seeing less money is how much they're investing in the programming. That's why you're seeing more game shows. That's why you're seeing more reality programming. And I'll tell you this: it really seemed to me at these parties that-- maybe this is fiddling while Madison Avenue burns but it seemed that people were staying longer and, and drinking more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max, thanks very much for coming in.
MAX ROBBINS: Brooke, it is always my extreme pleasure. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max Robbins writes The Robbins Report in TV Guide.