Broadcast Takes a Back Seat at the 2019 Upfronts

This may be remembered as TV’s gap year — a transitional period between the way things used to be and the way they’re going to be. That was clearly evident last week at the network upfront presentations, the annual event where execs tout their new wares to advertisers.

There was something different about this year’s proceedings, as many of the media conglomerates tried to have it two ways: Networks still matter, they said, but “reach” (one of the year’s buzzwords) matters more — individual networks be damned. However, for the congloms to achieve enough scale as their nascent streaming businesses grow, the content produced for those legacy-network brands is key.

You’d forgive media buyers for feeling a bit of whiplash after a week of hearing both messages simultaneously.

That’s why another buzzword of these upfronts was “multiplatform.” As old and new media collide, executives find themselves promoting the traditional benefits of linear broadcast and cable TV, while also admitting that they’re shifting many of their eggs into the streaming basket. It made for a rather low-key affair for the broadcast networks that are usually front and center at these events.

“That’s what the advertisers want to hear; that’s where most of the money gets spent,” says CBS chief content officer David Nevins. “It seems like the other guys are sort of relegating their broadcast networks [to] ‘We’re part of a megalith.’”

The most jarring changes this time came from NBCU, Disney and WarnerMedia, the three companies launching their own direct-to-consumer streaming services over the next year. In particular, Disney turned what had in previous years been the ABC upfront into a two-hour-plus Disney Upfront Experience meant to position the conglom’s properties — including FX, NatGeo, ESPN and Freeform — as one giant, holistic entity. (NBCU does the same thing with its brands.)

But media buyers and industry leaders couldn’t help feeling the diminished importance of individual networks as they watched these presentations. It took an hour and a half into Disney’s event to finally get to ABC’s turn. NBCU’s upfront similarly allotted as much time to many of its cable properties as it did to the Peacock network, making NBC almost an afterthought. And WarnerMedia lumped TNT, TBS and TruTV together, reflecting the fact that they’re all under one oversight but blurring the distinctions among them.

In squeezing all of their networks together as tightly as possible, the media conglomerates are acting like a blowfish that puffs itself up to look bigger against outside threats — such as Netflix.

And just like Netflix, this year the traditional media conglomerates touted huge “engagement” numbers with very little context, in order to get advertisers to think about the big picture, not those individual networks. Disney sales boss Rita Ferro said consumers “spent over 45 billion hours with our stories across [our] brands,” and that the company connects with 275 million people monthly across all screens. WarnerMedia’s Kevin Reilly said TBS, TNT, Adult Swim and TruTV “generate 1.3 billion hours of engagement and reach 239 million unique viewers each month.”

“If we were a country, we’d be the fifth largest in the world,” Reilly said onstage. “And in that country, we don’t want our visitors to ever leave.”

In the case of Reilly, who’s just been given the keys to TruTV in addition to TBS, TNT and the upcoming direct-to-consumer service, that means focusing less on where those shows premiere and more on how they do across the company’s multiplatforms (there’s that word again): hence the decision to move the action series “Snowpiercer,” which seems like the kind of dark drama that fits best on TNT, over to TBS. “You’ll begin to see a more integrated approach to our whole ecosystem,” Reilly explained in pulling back the distinctions between his channels.

Many of the media giants also spent more time than usual emphasizing library fare not even on their air anymore — the kind of shows that still attract the largest audiences on streaming services. Disney featured images of classic series like “Lost” in its sizzle reel, while NBCU emphasized the conventional wisdom that “The Office” is No. 1 on Netflix.

Speaking of Netflix, streaming was never far from mind at the upfront presentations; even CBS took more time than usual to promote its CBS All Access service. At NBCU’s upfront, ad sales and client partnership chairman Linda Yaccarino teased Comcast’s plans for its advertising-supported streamer. And WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey began his company’s upfront by also touting its still-unnamed service, including a newly planned ad-supported component.

Disney’s upfront, meanwhile, was nearly overshadowed by breaking news: That morning, the Walt Disney Co. sealed a deal with Comcast to take full ownership of Hulu, giving the company a second entry point (along with upcoming Disney Plus) into the streaming future.

And with that, streaming had once again overshadowed what had meant to be a day celebrating the traditional linear networks.

“Yes, we have all these other platforms and divisions that make content,” says Nevins. “Ultimately the upfront is about burnishing the network brand and creating excitement about new programming. I think it works. It’s still a $20 billion market. The lion’s share of that is broadcast television. Sometimes people lose sight of that.”

But the networks themselves weren’t exactly a hotbed of excitement this upfront week. Perhaps it was the mind-boggling amount of change at nearly every company that has left everyone shell-shocked. Indeed, the new world order at Disney, WarnerMedia, Fox and CBS gave this year a different vibe.

Also lingering in the background was the uncertainty created by the battle between the Writers Guild and the major talent agencies. “It’s a year of upheaval with the added emotion that comes out of the tension between the writers and the agents, who are longtime allies and friends,” says one rep. “To be at the upfronts and see traditional partners driven apart while at the same time all these new media companies are being realigned — it feels like the whole deck of cards is being shuffled.”

The safest place at the upfronts may have been on the networks’ actual fall schedules, as they chose to mostly play it cool and not flood the market with too many new shows or time-period changes. The third buzzword of this upfront season was “stability,” and everyone used it as a sign of strength — rather than considering the honest truth, which is that the network ratings are now too low to really take a gamble on shaking things up.

Given how crowded the marketplace is, it’s probably not a bad idea to keep things light, as premiering too many shows is a risky — and expensive — proposition. Instead, NBC is introducing just three new programs in the fall, while ABC and Fox have four freshmen and CBS has five. “Launching shows is hard,” says Universal TV president Pearlena Igbokwe. “They’re truly trying to focus on launching a few and really getting behind them, which I think is smart.”

The networks aren’t only holding back on shows for midseason; they’re also picking up more series with shorter orders — emulating a model favored by cable and streaming platforms. As usual, plenty of last-minute dealmaking went on between networks and studios to get shows on the air.

But unlike past years that have been contentious, Igbokwe says there was a remarkable lack of drama to this year’s proceedings — perhaps because of the general understanding that networks will favor in-house productions. “I think everyone now knows the drill,” she says. Adds Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth: “There was a sense of resignation about the structural changes that took place this past year. Everybody’s now resolved to be at a particular place. It’s challenging, but it’s not that hard to figure out.”

In a year marked by so much upheaval, that might be the best anyone can hope for.

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