Upfronts Diary: The top network stays humble

The network executives have been acting strangely at this year's upfronts. Generous. Gracious. Almost human. The presentations are usually a delicate ballet in which one pats one's own back with one hand, whilst sinking a knife into one's opponents' with the other. But this year, the competition has been nothing but congratulatory to ABC, complimenting it on the runaway success of "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost"!

An exciting time to be in the business! A great year for network TV! Give your money to the fine people at the American Broadcasting Company!, the rivals seem to be saying to the advertisers. And then —just if you have a little something left in your purse —perhaps you might spare a dollar or two for us?

It probably says something about the state of the networks that they're delighted to see any of them have success, just as long as it's not HBO or TLC. But it makes for a damn boring upfront. At this rate, ABC might as well pack up and take the week off.

They didn't, of course. However, they were surprisingly humble for the network with arguably the most to crow about this season. OK, there were something like twenty tributes to "Desperate Housewives" here at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall —including, delightfully, creator Marc Cherry, in top hat, tails and cane, belting out "Beautiful Girls" Broadway-style. There was the clip of Laura Bush name-checking the show at the White House Correspondents' dinner. And there was a clip reel of moments in ABC history, in which "Bosom Buddies" was given equal prominence alongside "The Day After."

But programming chief Stephen McPherson also said the network's comeback was only a "comeback-in-progress." Executives promised advertisers that they would not stop working to shore up weak spots and find more ways to put product placements in shows like "Alias." And the network announced a whopping twelve new shows, which you usually only do if your lineup is as leaky as the Exxon Valdez.