Upfronts 2017: Grading the Networks’ Presentations

Digital and cable fare mixed into many of this year’s presentations — but simple worked best. Here’s our take on how the networks impressed (or not) during Upfronts.

ABC
A-
The Disney network cut back on the anti-digital talk and focused on the shows it hoped to sell and the stories they were meant to tell.

ABC couldn’t send Jimmy Kimmel out to blast its audience of ad buyers as he has for years, owing to the late-night host’s desire to stay close to a newborn son and family. But it could dispatch “Goldbergs” mom Wendi McLendon-Covey to give out cookies to those assembled at New York’s David Geffen Hall. And that changed the tone of the proceedings.

Instead of hand-wringing over TV’s many technology and audience challenges, ABC dispensed comfort food: lively Shonda Rhimes dramas and the network’s trademark diverse-family comedies. Audiences warmed to Kyra Sedgwick’s mysterious “Ten Days in the Valley” and the fish-out-of-the-water comedy “The Mayor.”

A cameo by the cast of “Roseanne” — slated for a revival in 2018 — initially sparked applause. But their awkward banter recalled the old upfront presentations of the 1980s and ’90s, when each network would parade the casts from all the shows and force them to manufacture good feelings on the spot. Not an easy task.

CBS
A

Enjoying new power in late night and morning news, CBS put on a tight show that touted big audiences.

CBS has long believed in promoting good old TV in the digital age rather than apologizing for it. CBS ad-sales chief Jo Ann Ross showed a screen grab of a YouTube video that displayed a sinking ship adorned by a banner ad for a cruise line. “At CBS, we don’t let this ship happen to you,” she said. Then the company delivered a segment devoted to its streaming-video “All Access” service. The distribution mechanism seemed less important than its programming.

The focus wasn’t limited to prime time. Stephen Colbert and James Cor­den talked up their late-night shows. “CBS This Morning” trio Norah O’Donnell, Gayle King and Charlie Rose emphasized that the network is charging harder in the a.m. than it has in years. “The fact we are winning late night and the morning show is closing in on ‘Today’ has affected our bottom line,” said CBS CEO Leslie Moonves.

Attendees seemed to approve of “Me, Myself & I,” a new comedy starring Bobby Moynihan, as well as “SWAT.” CBS isn’t necessarily reinventing the programming wheel, but it does keep on rolling.

CW
B+

The CW hitched its cape to superhero dramas and streaming video and took some big programming swings.

The CW has the upfront down to a seeming science: An opening musical number from a hip band (in this case, Muse); a nod to the younger audiences the network tries to reach and its growing savviness in how to track them; and a few hours centered on soap suds, superheroes and sci-fi.

So audiences knew what they were going to get May 18 when they closed out television’s Upfront Week with the CW. Even so, the network offered up a few surprises: its revival of “Dynasty” (complete with a scene of a catfight between a reluctant stepmother and her stepdaughter-to-be) seemed ambitious; superhero drama “Black Lightning” has a family twist; and “Valor,” a military mystery, brings something new to the network’s format choices.

Ad-sales chief Rob Tuck and network president Mark Pedo­witz weren’t shy about the network’s digital plans. They called attention to the CW’s offer to stream current-season episodes and talked up the network’s understanding of VOD and OTT.

Fox
C-

Fox Networks Group introduced Madison Avenue to a new ad-sales chief and played up sports while dialing back noticeably on prime-time fare.

Ever since Rupert Murdoch ponied up more than $1 billion in 1993 to snatch NFL football from CBS, Fox has been synonymous with sports. And live sports generates TV’s heftiest commercial prices, so putting premium fare first makes sense. Yet Fox has also been synonymous with scripted shows ranging from “House” to “24.” This year, the balance seemed off.

To be sure, there were highlights. Joe Marchese, recently named president of ad revenue for Fox Networks Group, impressed attendees with talk of reducing ads and tailoring commercials to viewing environments. The concept of putting “Star” and “Empire” together on a night seemed enticing.

Yet some of the new programs failed to knock the ball out of the park. And the heavy sports focus created the impression that the company is less than excited about its regular broadcast lineup.

There was also a tone-deaf feeling, encapsulated by Joe Buck making jokes about his ex-wife. Those were not the quips to let fly for an operation in the same family as Fox News.

NBC
B-

NBCUniversal used its upfront to hype not just its broadcast flagship but nearly everything else it owns.

We get it, NBCUniversal. You’re not only NBC. You’re a multiplatform portfolio that includes broadcast, digital, cable and Spanish-language outlets. Heck, you’re even selling ads on Apple News. So we understand why new true-crime series at Oxygen stand alongside the debut of “Krypton” at Syfy and an eight-episode NBC limited-run “Law & Order” series about the Menendez murders. It’s all for sale, and you want advertisers to buy as much of it as they can.

Any owner of a cable network in 2017 knows full well that distributors like Charter or Dish are paying more attention to skinny bundles. So touting cablers at your glitzy upfront demonstrates a commitment that’s hard to ignore. But the smorgasbord of shows creates an experience not unlike that of a long visit to Golden Corral, where it’s a struggle to remember whether you dined on the fried catfish fillets or the firecracker buffalo meatballs: Recalling which NBCU show belonged to what network — and the value of advertising in each — becomes more difficult.

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