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‘Fargo,’ ‘Modern Family,’ Aretha Franklin and More: 5 Things We Learned at Disney’s Upfront

The newly merged suite of Disney networks held its first ever “Disney Upfront Experience” on Tuesday, featuring segments devoted to ESPN, FX, Freeform, ABC News and ABC. Highlights included comedic bits from ESPN’s Kenny Mayne and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, while singer John Mayer closed the show with two numbers. Here are some tidbits gleaned from the festivities:

FX reveals Chris Rock’s “Fargo” character name: There’s still plenty of secrecy behind Noah Hawley’s long-awaited fourth season of “Fargo,” but we now know the name of the character that Rock will be playing: Loy Cannon. Cannon is the head of a Kansas City crime syndicate in the 1950s. According to FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, production starts this fall on the new “Fargo,” with an early 2020 premiere.

In a pre-taped video, Rock said he had long been a fan of the “Fargo” TV show, and even his kids thought it was “cool” when they found out, via Google, that their father had joined the latest edition. “It’s organically funny,” Rock said of the show. “Even if I wasn’t in it, [I would have] the exact same level of excitement.”

Legendary record executive Clive Davis has joined National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha” as an executive producer: Davis joined fellow executive producers Brian Grazer and Suzan-Lori Parks on the Disney upfront stage to recount his 40-year friendship with the Queen of Soul. “After we met in 1979, she already was the Queen of Soul,” he said. “We talked about working together to reinvigorate her career.” That led to more No. 1 records and Grammy Awards in the 1980s and 1990s, he noted, “inspiring musicians all over the world how long a career could last. Aretha was truly a gift, one that will carry on for countless generations. I was always aware that she would forever be a part of history.”

Besides Davis, the Aretha Franklin estate, run by her niece Sabrina Owens, is also on board. “With Aretha, I wanted to understand, what does the ‘Queen of Soul’ really mean?” Grazer said. “We have since learned a lot about her … [she] changed the entire definition of soul.”

Modern Family” earned a rare upfronts standing ovation: Co-creator Steve Levitan and the long-running sitcom’s stars hit the Lincoln Center stage one last time to reminisce about the show’s decade-long run — and the ABC 2009 upfronts presentation, when the network screened the entire pilot for advertisers. Levitan quipped that it was “four network presidents ago,” and indeed “Modern Family” outlasted Steve McPherson, Paul Lee, Channing Dungey and now Karey Burke. Also, 10 years ago, “streaming was something you did in the bathroom.”

That decision to screen the entire pilot at the upfronts was a gamble — other networks have done similar stunts in the past, only to see those shows falter. But that upfront set the stage for “Modern Family’s” quick ascension to hit status. “Much to our relief, this room laughed in all the right places,” Levitan said. “Twenty-two minutes and all of our lives changed forever. We all consider it one of the best days of our lives.”

ESPN’s overtime per diem is $58: At least, that’s according to “Sportscenter” anchor Scott Van Pelt, who headlined ESPN’s portion of the Disney upfronts. Van Pelt noted that after the 4 p.m. event, he was heading back to the studio, where he’ll anchor his usual midnight episode — following the network’s coverage of Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals. In noting his long work day, he joked that since Disney CEO Bob Iger and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro were both in the audience, he’d ask to get his full per diem approved right then and there. “$58! I’ll take what I can get,” he said.

It’s still going to take time to get used to the Disney/FX juxtaposition: Outside Lincoln Center, posters promoted the wide variety of programs from Disney networks like ABC, Freeform, ESPN, and new siblings FX and National Geographic. But the posters also featured the Disney logo — and it was a bit jarring to see the iconic company’s logo next to some decidedly un-Disney-like series like FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Then there was the poster for “Mr Inbetween,” which featured a gun — definitely something you don’t usually see next to the word “Disney”:

CREDIT: FX/Disney

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