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NBCUniversal Touts Scale, Brand Safety and Familiar Faces at Upfront (Analysis)

The message couldn’t have been clearer from the stage at Radio City Music Hall on Monday morning, where NBCUniversal kicked off upfront week with an omnibus presentation covering its broadcast and cable networks.

Linda Yaccarino, NBCU’s chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships, told the assembled advertisers and media buyers that NBCUniversal is preparing a bold foray into the new frontier of streaming but in a configuration where sponsors are welcome. NBCUniversal’s streaming platform, targeted for debut in the U.S. by mid-2020, will use new technology to present TV the old-fashioned way: brought to you by America’s blue-chip advertisers.

“While other companies are pushing advertisers out, we’re bringing you in,” Yaccarino declared in her opening remarks.

As more high-end TV shifts to commercial-free streaming platforms a la Netflix, NBCU sees an opening to differentiate its service by making it largely free, supported by advertising rather than monthly subscription fees. (However, NBCU’s current cable programming is expected to be available only via authentication.) NBCU sees the free option as a big selling point to amass a large user base in a short time.

Over and over, NBCU pushed the concept of its networks as a safe haven for advertisers compared to the wild and wooly world of digital advertising. Yaccarino painted that in dramatic terms as “an all-out assault on trust.” Upfront presentations are usually all about what’s new, but this time around NBCU gave plenty of time to promoting familiar faces, even among shows like “The Office” that are no longer in NBC’s current series rotation. But they will surely be pillars of the streaming service.

Ted Danson, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Mariska Hargitay were among the past-and-present NBC stars who came out to wave and crack a few jokes while introducing new programming. It all seemed to roll up to one big pitch to advertisers about NBC’s depth, breadth and homey feel. Bradley Whitford, late of “The West Wing,” and Jimmy Smits, who became a star on NBC’s 1980s legal drama “L.A. Law,” are “coming home” to NBC with new series that got big plugs. Whitford’s “Perfect Harmony” comedy got a good reaction from the crowd. Smits is toplining the legal drama “Bluff City Law” that landed the coveted post-“Voice” Monday 10 p.m. slot.

Even NBC’s news stars — including Rachel Maddow, Lester Holt, Brian Williams and Savannah Guthrie — were introduced as “the journalists of the NBCUniversal news family.”

NBCU’s presentation was largely grouped by program genre: comedy, drama, unscripted, Spanish-language, news and sports, mirroring the specialities among some media buyers.

The Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020 got a big push, not surprisingly. One of the biggest reactions from the crowd during the 90-minute presentation came after a stirring Olympic highlights reel featuring past female champions. When that was followed by a group of female Olympians walking out on the Radio City stage, the crowd gave them a standing ovation.

That Olympic-level tug on the heartstrings was in keeping with NBCU’s feel-good message.

“We will future-proof this industry and we’re asking all of you to join us,” Yaccarino said. Although she only made passing references to the nascent streaming service, she promised that the company was working up a potent stew of “data, technology and content” that would deliver “everything you saw today on a scale you can’t possibly imagine.”

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