USA's Exec-Free Upfront Lands Janelle Monae

By Courtney Thompson May 6, 2011, 5:42 PM EDT

Photo: Jason DeCrow

USA Network's 2011 Upfront
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Janelle Monae had a busy Monday night. The up-and-coming pop star made her red carpet debut at the Costume Institute Gala (more on that event here); raced across town to perform a rousing, James Brown-esque, three song-set at the USA Network's upfront presentation at the Tent at Lincoln Center; raced back to the Met for dinner; and performed once again at Vogue's super-exclusive after-party at chef John DeLucie's not-yet-open restaurant Crown.

Booking the singer was a natural move for the network, according Alexandra Shapiro, USA's senior vice president of brand marketing and digital, as she had been named one of USA's Character Approved honorees in 2010. “I'm glad to say that we were early adopters of Janelle,” said Shapiro. “What sets her apart from the rest is that she demonstrates not only what it is to be a musician, but also a performer. As Piper [Perabo] said in her introduction, Janelle's a true character.”

Opting for an executive-free presentationa rarity in the upfront seasonUSA instead relied on its cadre of talent to introduce highlight reels and new programming, mixed in with the obligatory corny joke telling. “No one wants to come and hear another shill,” said Shapiro. “What they care about is content and programming, so we put our characters and our programs on center stage. It's not just about imparting information, it's also about entertaining.”

Shapiro tapped XA, the Experiential Agency to produce the 32-minute event, which was divided into two rooms, one for the presentation and performance, the other for a veritable feast comprised of four Danny Meyer restaurant stations (courtesy of Meyer's Union Square Events). Both rooms had clean color palettes, mixing the network's signature gray, navy, light blue, and white hues amidst clean lines and minimalist furniture. The 60- by 36-foot stage was topped by an enormous 30-foot projection screen and LED towers that were gradated in height. “The intent was to make the stage simple yet powerful,” said XA creative director Darren Andereck. “The simplicity was important, as the USA videos needed to be the star of the show.”

Fronting the stage was a 28- by six-foot branded panel that was surprisingly movable, revealing Monae's 10 piece band at the end of the presentation. “The wall was meant to meant to mimic a curtain reveal,” said Andereck.

Following the performance, produced by Alex Coletti, the 750 guests quickly headed to the next room, where Blue Smoke, Maialino, Union Square Cafe, and Gramercy Tavern doled out dishes ranging from brisket sliders and macaroni and cheese (Blue Smoke) to smoked pork shoulder and carrot-barley risotto (Gramercy Tavern). The verdict? Media buyers throughout the room could be heard extolling the high end eats (another upfront rarity), with several remarking that the spreadand Monae's performancemade the uptown trek on a Monday worthwhile.

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