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Upfronts Reflect Disruption and Transition at Big 4 Nets (Column)

There’s always a parade of new faces and budding stars at the broadcast networks’ annual upfront presentations. This week in New York, the newcomers include top executives at each of the Big Four networks.

A year of M&A, consolidation, management shake-ups, restructuring and downsizing will be reflected on the stages at the iconic New York venues where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC will tout their hot prospects for the 2019-20 television season. Even Turner, the cable titan that first barreled into the broadcast networks’ upfront week in 2008, has a new regime calling the shots — and the new moniker of WarnerMedia, following AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner last year.

Veteran upfront attendees might need a scorecard to keep track of the players who have moved to new teams. Dana Walden presided over Fox’s upfront presentation last year, but she’s now Team ABC/Disney. Bob Greenblatt was the big boss of NBC last year, but now he’s the head entertainment honcho at WarnerMedia. Charlie Collier was the cable guy at AMC who brought us “Better Call Saul” and “The Walking Dead,” but this year he’ll tubthump for the WWE and “Empire” at the Fox soiree. At CBS Corp., chief content officer David Nevins has widened his lens beyond Showtime to include the CBS mothership in the wake of Leslie Moonves’ ouster last year.

Disney will demonstrate the breadth of its newly enlarged TV operation with a presentation in which ABC will share the spotlight with new siblings FX Networks and National Geographic as well as ESPN and Freeform.

The omnibus approach will reinforce the depth of Disney’s content bench after its acquisition of 21st Century Fox. At ABC proper, the leadership team has shifted from last year’s duo of Ben Sherwood (now in entrepreneur mode) and Channing Dungey (now at Netflix) to Walden and Karey Burke (late of Freeform). Jimmy Kimmel should have a field day during his annual roast-the-industry segment with jokes about the Fox invasion of the House of Mouse, and vice versa.

NBC also made big changes at the top after Greenblatt’s exit, installing Jeff Shell in the “30,000-foot” post overseeing NBC Entertainment as well as Universal’s film operations. In the trenches, NBC veterans Paul Telegdy and George Cheeks were named NBC Entertainment co-chairs.

Greenblatt famously accompanied Dolly Parton on piano during NBC’s 2015 upfront presentation. Telegdy and Cheeks no doubt have been polishing their musical chops in preparation for the big day at Radio City Music Hall.

Every network executive in a position to say yea or nay to prospective new programs leaves a mark on the airwaves, no matter how long or short their tenure in the job. A wave of new faces in new places should bring renewed sizzle to the primetime lineup because there is no better motivation for taking big swings and abrupt turns than a newly installed leader with something to prove. But that frisson may take another year to materialize since all of the aforementioned shuffling is so fresh.

“This year’s upfront comes as the industry braces for still more changes in a TV ecosystem that no longer revolves around the broadcasters that created network television as we know it today.”

Moreover, this year’s upfront comes as the industry braces for still more changes in a TV ecosystem that no longer revolves around the broadcasters that created network television as we know it today. Netflix has forged the path for a new-model broadcaster packed with a dizzying array of shows designed to appeal to viewers around the world. More than the advent of color TV or cable, the shift to streaming on-demand platforms is the most significant iteration of the medium since David Sarnoff threw the switch on what would become the NBC television network some 80 years ago, at the 1939 World’s Fair. The audience, according to The New York Times, was estimated to be about 1,000 people gathered around 100 to 200 TV sets in use in New York. You’ve got to start somewhere.

The executives and the talent who grace the upfront stages this week are part of a long legacy. There may be hits in the batch of shows unveiled, and there will surely be misses. Some networks will be better off this time next year, and some will probably be in worse shape.

But for all the recent focus on growing, re­inventing and taking TV to new global heights, it would serve industryites well to take a moment this week to honor what has come before even as we marvel at what lies ahead. Any rational analysis of television, then and now, has to incorporate a healthy sense of awe and wonder at the miracle of making pictures fly through the air.

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