The TV biz did its best to serve up the usual razzle-dazzle at this week’s virtual upfront presentations, tapping stars for extended bits and queuing up sizzle reels for the Madison Avenue crowd. But even they tacitly acknowledged all the changes that have been rocking the television landscape since the last in-person upfronts in New York City two years ago: Gone was the usual emphasis on primetime, replaced with talk about media eco-systems and streaming. And they leaned into diversity and inclusion — a reflection of the renewed national conversation about racial inequality during the past pandemic year.
Here are key takeaways from this year presentations.
What networks? It’s all about being platform agnostic: It wasn’t that long ago that the annual network upfront presentations were all about the power of broadcast TV. Now, they’re not even “network” upfronts anymore. With the exception of Fox — which has been indie since Disney bought most of the 21st Century Fox assets — this year’s major upfront presentations were all about touting the heft of their respective conglomerate’s overall bucket of programming offerings. NBC, ABC and CBS were just blips in their respective NBCUniversal, Disney and ViacomCBS upfront presentations — almost begrudgingly mentioned as legacy outlets where shows are launched to eventually thrive on streaming platforms.
It’s a reflection of how those companies continue to flatten the distinction between channels and focus more on their programming assets and their streaming platforms. But that’s also made these upfront presentations a bit blurrier. The networks used to inject more swagger into their upfronts, which were centered around unveiling a deeply strategized night-by-night schedule. Those lineups were often aggressive attempts to steal viewers from the competition and were pretty much the hallmark of the entire TV universe. Now, they’re just a tiny part of the ecosystem. Time marches on and the business has rapidly changed into something dramatically different — and with it, the tone and tenor of the entire pitch to advertisers.
Buzziest appearance: Give WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar credit for being game. Two days after the shocking announcement of the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger, Kilar addressed the situation head-on in his remarks at the start of WarnerMedia’s long-planned virtual upfront on May 19. As speculation about his future with the company swirled, Kilar went on camera to cite the unpredictability of industry “transformation.” Later, in a pre-taped comedy bit, Kilar appeared with Conan O’Brien while outfitted in a parachute harness to joke about O’Brien’s TBS series ending. Can’t make this stuff up.
Franchise mania: Procedural franchises are set to dominate a massive portion of the fall lineup. NBC alone will have two full weeknights made up of their franchise shows — Wednesday night for all three “Chicago” shows and Thursdays for three “Law & Order” shows, including new series “Law & Order: For the Defense.” Then on CBS, “NCIS” and “NCIS: Hawai’i” will air back-to-back on Mondays, while Tuesdays are reserved for the three “FBI” shows, which now includes “FBI: International.” Elsewhere on CBS, the new iteration of “CSI” will air Wednesdays after “Survivor” and “Tough as Nails.” Fox has “9-1-1” and then “9-1-1: Lone Star” tag teaming the Monday 8 p.m. timeslot. Not to be left out, WarnerMedia is expanding its All Elite Wrestling franchise for its cable lineup: It is adding “AEW: Rampage” to TNT’s lineup later this year; in 2022, that new offering, along with “AEW: Dynamite” will shift to sister net TBS.
Spotlight on diversity: The major networks leaned into schedules that include diverse casts and storytellers, none more so than Disney, with the company’s media and entertainment distribution chairman Kareem Daniel touting the “imperative” around increasing inclusion in storytelling. From FX to ABC to Hulu — the latter of which launched the creator-of-color-focused Onyx Collection this week, led by Freeform president Tara Duncan — representation appeared to be a focus, spanning new series “Reservation Dogs,” “Queens,” the final season of “Black-ish,” and “The Wonder Years” reboot, featuring Don Cheadle.
Super techy ad jargon: Viewers may have tuned into the virtual upfronts for show previews and celebrities. And they got that. But they also got a brain-full of the latest Madison Avenue jargon. As technology gives rise to piles of consumer data, the networks are no longer solely in the business of selling TV commercials. They are also working to define niche audiences, and then assemble them for sponsors eager to find the next great vein of soda-drinkers, auto-intenders and IT decision makers. Little wonder, then that the media companies trotted out DRAX, the acronym for a Disney programmatic ad inventory marketplace, or One Platform, NBCU’s term for buying linear and digital inventory in one transaction.
“IP is the new primetime,” proclaimed JP Colaco, who heads up ad sales for WarnerMedia, in a nod to the fact that consumers can watch whatever shows they like whenever they like in today’s multiplatform world. In its presentation, Fox kept hammering home the point that it was the only network without paywalls (aka ad-free subscription services), while WarnerMedia talked up its upcoming HBO Max with ads.
T zone: WarnerMedia spilled some tea on the “TNets,” and for many viewing this year’s upfront presentation, it was the first time they had heard the term. Internally, as consolidation led the company to mostly retired the corporate “Turner” name (with a few exceptions, including Turner Sports and Turner Classic Movies), executives had already started referring to TNT, TBS and TruTV collectively as the “TNets.” That was also a reflection of the merger of the three networks under the oversight of general manager Brett Weitz. (TCM is not considered a “TNet,” as it doesn’t fall under Weitz’s domain.) But now, what was an inside WarnerMedia reference has gone wide: Recent press releases for the channels have started referring to the “TNets,” as in: “It’s a Sizzling Hot Summer for the TNets as TBS, TNT and TruTV Announce July Premieres” and “TNets Double Down on Original Programming Slate for 2022 With Second Season Renewals for ‘Wipeout,’ ‘Fast Foodies’ and ‘Chad.’” That led to plenty of chatter on social media, including this quip from M Squared Entertainment’s Tom Molen: “Will there be TNets+?”
Power producers: Dick Wolf wasn’t the only power producer with shows popping up on more than one network: Lee Daniels appeared in a segment for Fox’s upfront touting the upcoming series touting “Our Kind of People,” a series that will be set in an affluent Black community on Martha’s Vineyard, and is also producing ABC’s upcoming reboot of “The Wonder Years,” this time set in the South. “Women of the Movement,” an upcoming limited series about Emmett Till’s mother to air on ABC, features a heady list of exec producers, including Jay-Z (credited in the preview as Shawn Carter), Will Smith and Gina Prince-Bythewood, with the latter directing the first episode. Smith, for his part, appeared on NBCUniversal’s upfront to tease the upcoming reimagining of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” for Peacock.
End of an era: For the first time in perhaps ever (going back to the dawn of the networks in 1948), there was no fall comedy on NBC’s schedule. The network has some on deck for midseason, and NBCUniversal is behind several of the buzziest new streaming comedies that have recently launched, including Peacock’s “Girls5eva” and HBO Max’s “Hacks.” But for the network that once heralded a “Must See TV” lineup that boasted as many as 18 sitcoms at once, that’s quite a change.
Kimmel unleashed: ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel once again poked fun at the upfront presentations that preceded him, this time taking aim in front of small audience off-camera due to virtual pandemic protocols. Among his targets: falling network audiences, and diversity efforts, including “The Wonder Years” reboot with a Black family on his own network. “Somehow when everyone’s stuck in their houses with nothing to do but watch TV for the past 14 month and we still managed to lose ratings,” Kimmel joked.
Diane Garrett, Cynthia Littleton, Elaine Low, Joe Otterson, Michael Schneider and Brian Steinberg contributed to this report.