Technical problems at TBS and TNT's upfront presentation to advertisers Wednesday briefly prevented the networks from previewing some of their shows — and provided a refreshing reminder that television is still created by human beings, prone to occasional missteps and fumbles.
It also led to some unexpected comedy.
The problems began during Conan O'Brien's introduction when he introduced a clip. It never materialized on the massive screen above the stage. After a beat, O'Brien deadpanned, "I love working at TBS — the commitment to detail."
After a stagehand came out to whisper something in Conan's ear, the late-night host shrieked in mock agony, "No clip?!" And then he added, "Who the hell are you?"
The off-the-cuff jokes scored big with the standing-room-only audience, which seemed largely unfazed by the morning's many technical difficulties, the first of which took several minutes to correct. The same could not be said of Conan's sidekick, Andy Richter.
At a press luncheon following the event, Richter told TheWrap that he had missed signs of the snafu because he had called home to his family while waiting to do a voiceover a few minutes in. He got a surprise when he stepped up to his microphone on cue.
"When I was finishing my vocal, I thought, 'I'm not hearing anything,'" said Richter. "And then I saw like an empty stage and a blank screen, and then everybody said, 'Oh, yeah, it's all gone horribly wrong.'"
A few minutes later, while techies rushed around attempting to correct the problem, Richter bailed.
"I get a vicarious sense of anxiety when something like that happens," he told TheWrap, "because I just put myself in the position of the people that have to do this. I liken it to when you're sitting next to a couple at a restaurant and they're having a whisper fight. It's the worst thing because you just start to soak up the stress."
"I actually went across the street and bought a lens at [a photo store]," added Richter with a grin.
Some of the troubles seemed almost like part of the show, as when a preview of TNT's upcoming Spielberg-produced sci-fi drama "Falling Skies" abruptly stopped. Was it a "War of the Worlds"-style joke? The aliens arriving?
No, it turned out, just a power surge.
"A power surge caused a temporary disruption to video elements at the TEN Upfront this morning," Turner Entertainment Networks said in a statement issued during a break in the action. "Turner executives and show talent rose to the occasion and the show continued after a brief interruption."
During a second glitch, Ray Romano, one of the stars of TNT's "Men of a Certain Age," got up on stage to entertain the perplexed but patient crowd with an impromptu routine. "They said earn your money," he said. "Have you seen my paycheck?"
Hilariously, Romano didn't score as many laughs as the man who signs his paycheck — Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin. The gregarious exec rushed out during the first snafu to apologize for the difficulties – and launched into a riff that included him attempting to get one half of the audience to start up a "Row row row your boat" chant.
"Unfortunately, we had a power surge," Koonin said. "It blew … something. [Pause] I'm Jewish — I have no idea. The shit stopped working."
Upfront presentations to advertisers typically try to dazzle them into buying into the perfect, illusory world of television. They enlist a relentlessly peppy mix of Top 40, dizzying edits and canned patter — sometimes projected on the back wall of the theater, over the audience members' heads, in case the perfectly coiffed stars and executives crossing the stage haven't memorized their lines.
But TNT and TBS' presentation provided a nice dash of humanity. It's not often that you hear a network president attempt a comedy routine that includes curse words and a plea to get one half of the crowd to sing "Row row row your boat" — and actually score big laughs.
Richter neatly summed up the way his network adeptly handled what could have been a major embarrassment.
"Things like this, if you treat them right, can be a gift," he said.