Upfronts 2018: Networks Went Back to Basics Amid Merger Mania

Ben Sherwood was crowing. The Disney-ABC Television Group president kicked off his upfront pitch to advertisers by bragging about revived multicamera comedy “Roseanne,” whose star Roseanne Barr had just introduced him on stage. The show had recently secured its hold on the top ratings position in Nielsen’s 18-49 demographic for the season. It was the first time in 24 years that ABC had been home to the No. 1 show — a fact, Sherwood joked, that ABC had neglected to share with ad buyers for the past 24 years.

“If anyone came to play a drinking game based on how many times we mention ‘Roseanne,’ you’re welcome,” Sherwood said.

Every network goes into its upfront prepared to brag about something. Recent years had seen linear programmers place greater and greater emphases on broad portfo­lios and multiplatform presence. But several digital competitors that have been successfully siphoning ad dollars from television for years have recently been staggered by controversy. During last week’s annual broadcast presentations, programming reasserted itself as central — even amid a flurry of C-suite drama.

“In prior years the rush was toward data and digital and all things new and shiny,” said Xumo CEO Colin Petrie-Norris. “This year it was a little bit of getting back to what you’re good at for the presenters. There wasn’t as much mention of data. It was much more back to new shows and why broadcast TV does what it does — high reach and high quality.”

NBCUniversal ad-sales chief Linda Yaccarino used the idea of quality as a bludgeon against digital competitors such as YouTube and Facebook, which have been beset by content controversies in the past year. With NBCUniversal, Yaccarino told buyers, “your brand always runs next to premium content. Other brands can’t guarantee that.” She then threw to a lengthy dance number by Jennifer Lopez and the stars of NBC’s “World of Dance.”

“I found the most interesting theme to be the humanity aspect, how each of the networks tried packaging their offerings around a sort of human emotion, in stark contrast to the digital landscape — which for lack of a better term, is pixelated and an unsafe environment for your advertisers,” said Katz Media Group chief marketing officer Stacey Schulman. She cited a video from CBS’ upfront in which John Malkovich yelled an impassioned monologue about storytelling.

The networks were tub-thumping shows like (clockwise from far left) Fox’s “Last Man Standing,” NBC’s “New Amsterdam,” CBS’ “Magnum, P.I.” and ABC’s “The Rookie.”

But palace intrigue at CBS cast a shadow across not just that network’s presentation but all the broadcasters’. Just hours before NBCUniversal kicked off its upfront Monday, CBS Corp. filed suit against its primary shareholder, Shari Redstone, seeking to block her efforts to merge the company with Viacom. A legal back-and-forth played out in the days that followed (and continues to do so). When CBS CEO Leslie Moonves took the stage at Carnegie Hall, he began his pitch by joking, “So how was your week?”

The CBS drama added to the sense of uncertainty across the TV business created by the recent rush of mergers and acquisitions — AT&T-TimeWarner, Sinclair-Tribune, CBS-Viacom, Disney-Fox. At their upfront, Fox Television Group co-CEO Gary Newman began, “We want to welcome you to New Fox,” with counterpart Dana Walden adding, “This is an exciting opportunity for our network. We have an opportunity to chart a new course for broadcast television.”

But the schedule that Fox presented was heavy on the staple foods of broadcast television — scripted programs and football in the fall, unscripted shows at midseason and summer. Asked if looming questions about Disney’s proposed acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox affected planning, Howard Kurtzman, co-president of studio 20th Century Fox Television, told Variety: “Simply stated, we’ve all been told business as usual, and that’s the way we’ve conducted ourselves. Our development strategy didn’t change. Our pilot production strategy didn’t change. We’ve continued to do what we’ve done.”

Indeed, the 2018 upfronts saw several programming trends extended — vertical integration of studio and network, reboots and revivals of old television series, and a swing toward multicamera comedies. All three were embodied by Fox’s move to revive “Last Man Standing,” the multicam family sitcom starring Tim Allen that was canceled by ABC at the end of 2016-17 and is owned by 20th TV.

“I think the return and success of ‘Will & Grace’ had a big impact on the desire for more multicams.”
Pearlena Igbokwe, Universal Television president

Kurtzman’s counterpart Jonnie Davis said that “bringing back other shows” was the most obvious trend of the 2018 upfronts. “‘Roseanne’ is sort of the beachhead,” Davis noted. “You’re looking at ‘Murphy Brown.’ Then you see ‘Magnum, P.I.’ But if you’re going to bring back that sort of IP, you’ve got to be good and you’ve got to make a case for why it’s useful in this world right now.”

“Last Man Standing,” whose star Allen is a supporter of President Trump, is in part a play to reach the same audience that ABC did with “Roseanne.” Another advantage: The series is owned by Fox, unlike single-camera comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which was canceled by Fox and picked up a day later by NBC, which owns the series through Universal Television.

“Last Man Standing” is one of three multicams ordered by Fox, along with “Rel” and “The Cool Kids.” NBC and CBS also picked up new multicams. The format is favored by studios for being repeatable and syndication-friendly, but efforts to develop more of them in recent years have yielded little fruit. The success of multicam reboots “Roseanne” and NBC’s “Will & Grace,” however, is starting to turn the tide.

“I think the return and success of ‘Will & Grace’ had a big impact on the desire for more multicams,” Universal Television president Pearlena Igbokwe told Variety. “It illustrated that the format was still relevant to today’s audiences.”
Multicams became more difficult to develop after the single-camera comedy became favored by many creators more than a decade ago. “You can’t convince someone to do a multicamera comedy,” Davis said. “The Cool Kids” and “Rel,” he added, came to fruition because respective co-creators Charlie Day and Lil Rel Howery wanted to play with the format. “You have to have a producer or a writer come in and say, ‘I have a great idea for a multicamera, and here’s why I think it works in 2018.’”

The revival of multicams was part of the larger narrative the networks spun at their upfronts — about content with broad appeal that provides large scale and a safe harbor for advertisers weary of questionable digital content.

“The networks seemed to have more pep in their step this season,” Igbokwe said. “Broadcast hits like ‘Will & Grace,’ ‘This Is Us,’ ‘Roseanne,’ ‘The Good Doctor,’ ‘Young Sheldon,’ demonstrate that the medium still has a lot of drawing power and certainly isn’t dead.”

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