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What We Learned From the 2018 Upfronts

TV’s 2018 upfront presentations brought with them new shows and plenty of surprises – just what anyone might expect from this annual paean to the nation’s biggest TV networks.

Behind the glitz and celebrity, however, were a bevy of not-so-subtle reminders of how much money is at stake. Comcast, Walt Disney, 21st Century Fox, CBS and Time Warner are about to vie for billions in advertising commitments, and the slightest misstep could weigh on their chances to prevail.

We went to the upfronts so you didn’t have to. Below, a few of our findings:

*Diversity is driving programming decisions….

From CBS’s new “Magnum PI” reboot to a host of presentations that spelled out exact percentages and numbers of female showrunners and producers, Big TV was eager to show how it could fill its schedules with stuff that many audiences might want to see. At a time when many people are feeling polarized by politics, it’s sort of a TV-screen kum-bi-ya moment,

Much of it this may be driven by goodwill and a desire to cultivate all audiences, not just some. But there’s something else behind it as well – money. Big advertisers are working to be relevant to all audiences, not just a few. “More of our advertising is depicting people of different races in an accurate way and also promoting racial equality and talking about things like racial bias as well as LGBTQ and people with disabilities,” Marc Pritchard, Procter & Gamble’s chief brands officer, told Variety in a recent interview. “We are really looking at ensuring that our ads reflect the diversity of the people that we serve. Because what happens when the world’s largest advertiser does that on an everyday brand that people are seeing every day, it has a positive effect on attitudes. It helps equality become the norm, and helps mitigate bias, which is a very real human condition. We are looking for that from our programs too.”

*Upfront Week is about cable and digital as much as it is about broadcast…

Walt Disney Co. for years has pitched its ABC Family – now called Freeform – cable network as a standalone entity, usually sometime in a March event. This week, the outlet was part of ABC’s overall presentation.

In recent years, many of the big media companies have added their non-broadcast assets to the mix, and with good reason. As viewers migrate to new video opportunities, like Amazon or Hulu, the cable and digital outlets supply more audience. CBS on Wednesday devoted a segment fo its upfront to “CBS All Access,”its SVOD option and brought out Sonequa Martin-Green, the star of its update of “Star Trek” that is available only on that service. Fox has for a few years touted its FX cable network and NBCUniversal has squeezed E!, Bravo, Oxygen, Telemundo and more into its Radio City confab for at least three of its annual sessions.

*What’s old is new again…

CBS didn’t mark “Murphy Brown” as a new show on its schedule Wednesday, but for all intents and purposes, it is – a new show with a built-in audience and a host of others who have heard all about the program and could be convinced to check it out. It’s part of a piece of an increasing number of revived or rebooted series that are taking up more time on the networks’ schedules. The CW, which already airs a retooled version of “Dynasty,” is even hoping to add new luster to “Roswell, New Mexico” – a second attempt at taking the popular “Roswell High” series and making it into a TV success (TV aficionados will recall “Roswell,” a TV series that aired on WB and UPN between 1999 and 2002). Add to this a new “Magnum PI,” the recent success of “Roseanne” on ABC and “Will and Grace” on NBC and scrapped efforts to bring back “The Greatest American Hero” and it’s easy to see why TV executives will keep digging up the past in an effort to secure the medium’s future.

Like elections, M&A matters…

Your business is showing! The Fox and CBS presentations simply could not ignore bigger corporate maneuverings taking place in the business world. Fox is preparing to move forward as a significantly different entity: Its broadcast network will no longer have an affiliated studio if a proposed sale of the bulk of assets belonging to 21st Century Fox moves forward. And it will become heavily dependent on sports, which was made plain to everyone who took in the company’s presentation. Meanwhile, much of CBS’ show took place as a battle is raging between the company and its majority shareholder, National Amusements, over the fate of the corporation. A partial standing ovation for CEO Leslie Moonves and a pointed joke from Stephen Colbert made plain that entertainment and business are always entwined.

*You can’t judge a book by its cover…

Twitter followers and TV scribes last year predicted a less-than-robust performance by ABC’s reboot of “Roseanne” last year, owing to the lack of on-stage chemistry evidenced by the show’s cast during a brief turn on the upfront stage. This year, no one was doubting Roseanne Barr, who taped a segment in which she sang Fran Sinatra’s “My Way” in front of the “American Idol” judges – a nod to her controversial 1990 performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It just goes to show that upfront performance is not a predictor of future dynamics.

*Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers remain hot tickets….

It’s hard for a comedian to make fun of the crowd at an upfront – particularly when the executives who asked the comic to go on stage are hoping the audience will cough up hundreds of thousands of dollars in just a few weeks’ time. But Kimmel and Meyers – Kimmel has been doing a routine at the upfront for years, while Meyers has gotten into the swing of things over the past several sessions – have mastered the balance of making fun of the process and keeping the crowd entertained. Bubbling up: Turner’s annual confab of Anderson Cooper, Conan O’Brien and Shaquille O’Neal, who seem to have little in common, is making strides, if you like non-sequiturs and a conversation that tilts toward the bizarre:

Anderson Cooper: What do you think of total viewer consumption?

Conan O’Brien: Why are we here again?

Shaqille O’Neal: What was the question?

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