Backstage at the TV Upfronts

Girl sat on floor in front of large white screen
Girl sat on floor in front of large white screen

It's May of 1994. One afternoon, in Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, NBC announced that a show innocuously titled Friends had made the fall schedule.

Later that night I was in the bar of a New York hotel with Don Ohlmeyer, the president of NBC West Coast; Jimmy Burrows, who directed the Friends pilot; and my husband. Seated at the next table were Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, and David Schwimmer.

No non-pros (as Variety used to call the audience) recognized them. No one asked for an autograph. No one asked for a photograph. No one gawked. No one had a clue who they were.

Six months later, their hair-dos had names and none of them could go to Starbucks without a bodyguard.

This week, they're at it again. The annual migration from Hollywood to New York for the network TV upfronts, the introduction of the new fall shows to advertisers and entertainment reporters.

The week of celebration and optimism and instant criticism is the culmination of a year long development process that proves (or disproves, depending on whether you got picked up) Darwin's theory that only the fittest survive.

The process is grueling, exhausting, insulting, exciting and demeaning. It is ridiculously imperfect (as every fall season proves). It is a kind of hell week, only it lasts a year.

So why would otherwise sane people (well, most of them, anyway) subject themselves to this?

The answer is simple: Friends.

It all starts with an idea. (Quirky '90s characters whose lives intersect at a place called Central Perk. As opposed to quirky '80's characters whose lives intersect at a place called Cheers.) Over the next few months, that idea is scrutinized and reworked dozens of times from every conceivable angle (how Rachel didn't turn into a space alien related to an ambitious taxi driver from Queens is beyond me) until it becomes a shooting script. Then it becomes a pilot. If the pilot tests well and there is a suitable time period and the most powerful guy in the room doesn't hate you or the show, it becomes a series. It's kind of like the Republican primaries. All that work, and you still might be cancelled by the first week of November.

Unless, of course, your show is Friends or is lucky enough to be on CBS.

The final weeks before the upfronts are particularly enervating for everyone involved. The network executives are in lockdown, focused on finding their next hit while the rest of the world trades unconfirmed (and often totally absurd) rumors in a state of panicked anxiety. Did the show screen well? Test well? What was so-and-so's reaction? What's the competition? What's the research?

Network executives drag themselves through back-to-back screenings, surviving on leathery pizza, stale Doritos, and the ultimate stress reducer: M&M's. (The details of which are explored in my novel, Primetime Princess.)

But everyone -- writers, producers, actors, directors, executives -- has the same emotions: optimism, fear, excitement, trepidation, relief and exhaustion. Everyone is in this game together.

And it's a hell of a game. Just playing is a rush. Winning is an amazingly intense experience that makes all the missed sleep, weekends, and family events worth it.

If you get trashed, you'll more than likely bounce back to play again next year. Today's loser is tomorrow's winner. Today's winner is tomorrow's also-ran.

Don't believe me? Just ask George Clooney. He was in fifteen busted pilots. Then there was ER.

You may have heard of it.