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Disney Unveils the Other Half of its Television Universe at Upfront (Analysis)

Disney’s upfront presentation on Tuesday at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall amounted to the second half of the starry unveiling of its Television Universe.

The two-hour-plus showcase came on a month after the April 11 showcase of plans for the Disney Plus streaming service, which came less than a month after Disney completed its historic acquisition of 21st Century Fox.

Last month’s Disney Plus presentation was geared to investors, part of Disney’s bid to reshape the Wall Street narrative around traditional media giants as the world’s largest media company marshals its brand forces. Tuesday’s razzle-dazzle was aimed at Madison Avenue, reinforcing the importance of — and Disney’s exposure to — the domestic TV advertising market to the health of the company’s overall business.

The upfront offered a visual representation of all that has come under one roof through the Fox transaction. FX Networks, National Geographic and the 20th Century Fox TV and Fox 21 Television Studios content factories are now aligned with ABC, ESPN, ABC News, Freeform, ABC Studios, Disney Plus and assorted assets.

The press preview element of the “Disney Upfront Experience,” as ABC’s traditional day in upfront week was billed, began Tuesday morning Disney announcing a complex agreement with Comcast that gives Disney operational control of Hulu. Sealing Disney’s sway over the management of the subscription service was the last major link in the chain of formidable content brands that Disney chief Bob Iger has been building for more than 15 years. Kevin Mayer, Disney’s chairman of direct-to-consumer and international, opened the upfront for the first time in his role as the top executive in charge of advertising and distribution revenue for Disney’s global television operations.

The scale of the enlarged company is immense. Executives see an opportunity to court top talent with a pitch that coming to Disney offers an array of options, from kidvid on Disney channels to the edgy and heady material that marks FX’s best work to the high-end documentary and narrative programming served up by National Geographic. Disney has a near cradle-to-grave portfolio of content options — entertainment, sports, news, lifestyle, documentary and educational programs — that also bring new weight to the idea of “one-stop shopping” for advertisers.

With Hulu, Disney even functions as a digital MVPD, offering smaller bundles of streaming cable channels. Hulu’s presence helps set the market floor price for Disney’s traditional cablers, in the streaming realm. TV industry observers in attendance marveled at Disney’s muscle. Some noted that the company will have a heavy influence on setting the market rate for talent deals, even at a time when upstart streaming services — Netflix, Amazon and Apple, principally  — have been spending big, driving paydays for top showrunners and actors to unprecedented heights.

In all, the parade of brands and program niches underscored Disney’s rationale for swallowing up 21st Century Fox in March at a pricetag of $71.3 billion.

ESPN and FX Networks were the first to present on Tuesday. Both groups operate multiple channels in the most challenged TV sector, ad-supported cable. up. ESPN emphasized its legacy and ubiquity in sports with telecasts of some 25,000 events a year across its linear and digital platforms. As ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt put it on stage, the brand is “the place of record for sports fans who matter.”

FX Networks’ chief John Landgraf let the trailers he brought do most of the talking on stage. He represented FX’s high-art standard for drama and blue-collar taste for comedy with promo reels for four upcoming projects. Two dramas represented FX at its most prestigious: Chris Rock talking up his departure dramatic turn in the next “Fargo” and Cate Blanchett detailing her look at the 1970s women’s movement through the eyes of conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafley in “Mrs. America.” Both projects feature large ensemble casts — the kind that are awards chum — and strive to break through as cultural commentary, as seen through the prism of the past.

The techno-conspiracy thriller “Devs” from “Ex Machina” filmmaker Alex Garland, is in keeping with moody FX potboilers ranging from “Legion” to “Sons of Anarchy.” The final plug went to a short from “Lil Dicky,” aka YouTube personality Dave Burd, who earned a comedy series order from FX in February.

Nat Geo, Freeform and ABC News each got a moment on stage to tout their wares and their focus to inform the assembled advertisers and media buyers. ABC got the lions share of the attention in the second hour as newly appointed ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke walked the crowd through the network’s schedule, night by night. The NBC alum who was overseeing programming for Freeform prior to her promotion to ABC late last year  easily summarized her qualifications for the job of pulling ABC out of fourth place.

“I have made shows, I have bought shows and I have sold shows,” Burke said of her long resume. She called Disney TV leaders Peter Rice and Dana Walden, newly transplanted from Fox, executives “who know how to win.”

In all, the parade of brands and program niches across the Geffen Hall stage underscored Disney’s rationale for swallowing up 21st Century Fox at a pricetag of $71.3 billion.

“The power of the advertising portfolio we have brought together might be the most exciting thing of all” resulting from the merger, Mayer said. 

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