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5 Takeaways From NBCUniversal’s Upfront

NBCUniversal kicked off the broadcast week of upfronts Monday with its presentation at Radio City Music Hall. Here are the five key takeaways:

1. Facebook is worth kicking.

It didn’t take NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke long to get his first veiled dig at Facebook in during his address at the top of the show.

“Digital companies are being accused of invasion of people’s privacy, accused of false measurement,” Burke said. He didn’t call out the social-media giant by name, but he might as well have. At the other end of the Facebook-diss spectrum was a video featuring ad-sales chief Linda Yaccarino edited into footage from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Senate hearing. The video began with Yaccarino sitting down behind a table in a faux Senate chamber, then standing back up, pulling a booster seat off her chair and tossing it aside: “Someone give that back to Zuckerberg,” she said.

In between Burke and Yaccarino, references to Facebook were sprinkled throughout, with several mentions of the Cambridge Analytica data breach included in the NBC News sizzle reel. It was clear that NBCUniversal, with its broad linear portfolio, is less concerned with competitors in its immediate neighborhood than with the migration of ad dollars to digital media — territory it sought to portray as dangerous and wild.

2. The Olympics cast a long shadow.

The NBC Sports segment kicked off with the U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team taking the stage. They drew a standing ovation, but also inadvertently highlighted the fact that this is not an Olympics year for NBC. When one of the gold medalists, after promoting the World Cup on Telemundo, cheerily said, “And let’s not forget about the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020!” it served only as a reminder of how far away that is.

Despite finishing the season as the No. 1 network in total viewers and the 18-49 demo, NBC barely touted its ratings win from the stage — save one sizzle-reel graphic that boasted of outperforming the next best network in the demo by 38%. But that victory was fueled largely by the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl. “Late Night” host Seth Meyers, who emceed the back part of the show, joked about the trouble with bragging on NBC’s big sports-fueled victory heading into a season where neither event will be on the network’s air, saying it was like a waiter telling customers what specials a restaurant had run out of.

3. Old reality brands die hard.

When “Watch What Happens Live” host Andy Cohen announced that “Project Runway” would move to Bravo after more than a decade on rival Lifetime, it drew some of the loudest cheers of the presentation. It was also a rare case of news actually breaking on an upfront stage.

That the return of “Project Runway” to its original home was received as exciting news demonstrated that the programming nostalgia driving reboot mania in the scripted space is in full effect in unscripted as well. Other examples were easy to spot, such as Simon Cowell touting the expansion of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent”; E! trotting out “Laguna Beach” alum Kristin Cavallari to promote her new series; and Bravo bringing back original “Queer Eye” cast members Carson Kressley and Thom Filicia for a new home-makeover show clearly designed to capitalize on the buzz around the Netflix revival of the franchise they once starred in for the cable channel.

4. “This Is Us” is NBC’s standard bearer.

The sizzle reel that kicked off the NBC primetime portion began and ended with “This Is Us.” When the cast of the series — which Meyers joked is “the saddest show that’s not on CNN” — took the stage, more cameras were raised than at any moment prior.

The family drama, again broadcast’s highest-rated hour, provides NBC with not only bragging rights, but also a programming mold it is clearly trying to fill with next season’s new scripted series. The trailer for “The Village” teased a drama designed to strike the same sentimental chords as “This Is Us.” “New Amsterdam” looked like “ER” filtered through “This Is Us.” “Manifest” looked like “Lost” filtered through “This Is Us.” Even “The Enemy Within,” a spy drama in the “24” vein, appears to have a strong family-tragedy streak running through it.

On the comedy side, NBC touted experimental outdoor multicam “Abby’s” and family single-cam “I Feel Bad” — as well as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the Universal Television comedy that was canceled by Fox then scooped up a day later by NBC, and whose star Andy Samberg briefly joined Meyers on stage.

5. Brand safety is a selling point.

Yaccarino touted “brand safety,” telling assembled ad buyers that with NBCUniversal “your brand always runs next to premium content. Other brands can’t guarantee that.” To illustrate her point, she introduced a performance featuring the stars of NBC’s “World of Dance,” with Jennifer Lopez closing out the upfront.

Yaccarino’s point was teased by Burke in his speech at the top, when he said, “You can count on us to have the right kind of investments and the right kind of culture to make our company work for you.”

Both statements can be read as more swipes at digital competitors such as Facebook and YouTube, which have experienced issues with ads placed adjacent to controversial content. But the point also applies to their own news division, given the accusations levied against Matt Lauer, as well as direct competitors such as CBS News and Fox, whose flagship cable-news network has been beset by advertisers pulling out of primetime shows hosted by Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.

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