Fox Corp. surprised the industry on Monday by hosting an upfront programming presentation that was almost entirely pre-recorded.
About 800 attendees gathered at the Skylight venue in Lower Manhattan for the presentation that unfolded in immersive fashion across giant screens for just over an hour. Once the lengthy pre-recorded portion was finished, Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier took to a platform set up in the middle of the room to address the crowd in person.
Collier then introduced Susan Sarandon, star of the network’s new drama “Monarch.” Her co-star in the country music drama, musician Trace Adkins, also came out and performed (to pre-recorded tracks) the Hank Williams Jr.classic “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
Attendees sat nightclub-style in the round at small tables. As the 4 p.m. presentation began to unspool, it became clear that the event from Fox Sports, Fox News and Fox Entertainment was going to be largely pre-recorded. Fox Corp. senior executives, including CEO Lachlan Murdoch (in sneakers), sat in a long line against the far edge of the room full of media buyers and journalists.
The general reaction from the crowd was surprise that the event was pre-recorded given all the attention this year to the fact that the industry is returning to in-person upfront schmoozing for the first time in three years.
The unorthodox presentation also demonstrated that the Fox broadcast network is still a work in progress following the split from 21st Century Fox after the sale of Disney in 2019. Fox’s scripted slate casts a wide net for audience, from the soapy saga of a country music dynasty in “Monarch” to the new legal thriller anthology “Accused” to comedies like Mayim Bialik’s “Call Me Kat” and the mockumentary “Welcome to Flatch.”
Collier showed off two new animated comedies that came across as being firmly rooted in sophomoric humor: “Grimsburg” and “Krapopolis.” Jon Hamm, who voices the lead character of “Grimsburg,” bantered briefly with Collier in a pre-taped segment, noting that the bar is high given the longevity of Fox animated hits such as “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “Bob’s Burgers.”
Hamm played off his handsome-leading-man image by telling the crowd that Collier courted him with the declaration, “‘Hamm, you have a face for animation.’ What else could I say to that jealous bastard but ‘Sign me up.’ “
In his pre-taped remarks, Collier extolled the new-model Fox Corp. as combining “a healthy dose of entrepreneurial smart investment and Fox’s rebel roots,” he said. What’s more, the company plans to “reinvent” the Gumby franchise after acquiring the property in February.
Collier and Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks both got a lot mileage out of the fact that streamers Netflix and Disney+ are eagerly embracing advertising to expand their revenue base.
“Recently there have been headlines saying ‘advertising is back.’ I didn’t know it had left,” Collier said in the pre-taped segment. “Now Netflix and Disney are coming. They can’t afford to build their paywall without your money.”
Earlier, in his presentation of Fox Sports programming plans, Shanks quipped to the advertisers and media buyers in the crowd, “Without you we would just be Netflix. We love selling trucks and pizzas and phones.”
Fox positioned itself as deeply committed to working with marketers in creative ways. Michael Strahan, one of the hosts of “Fox NFL Sunday,” noted that the show is getting a new high-tech set that is purpose-built to display sponsor messages.
The presentation also marked the first remarks from superstar quarterback Tom Brady since he struck a mammoth 10-year deal with Fox Sports to move into the broadcast booth next year after he completes his farewell season as a player with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In his brief remarks, Brady said he looked forward to “being with you guys on the field for Super Bowl 57 in February,” which was interpreted as a signal that the winningest quarterback in NFL history plans to retire — for real this time — after a final swan-song season. (Brady announced his retirement earlier this year but changed his mind in March.)
Fox’s presentation also assiduously sidestepped any mention of the controversies around Fox News. Fox News anchor Bret Baier was the first personality shown in the long highlights reel that opened the presentation. But Tucker Carlson, the channel’s most-watched and most controversial personality, was not mentioned. Carlson’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has stirred outrage and alienated mainstream advertisers with his far-right views on immigration, the nation’s growing ethnic diversity, the federal response to COVID and other topics.
Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott made brief comments in a prerecorded segment. “We are America’s news and much more,” she said. Pete Hegseth, a host on the streaming service Fox Nation, described that streamer as expanding beyond news and opinion personalities into lifestyle programming, cooking and automotive topics. As Hegseth spoke, American flag imagery played on the giant screens — and to buttress the point, Hegseth even wore an American flag pocket square.
CLICK HERE to follow Variety‘s coverage of Upfronts 2022
During the Fox Entertainment segment, Collier gave a virtual tour of the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles in an effort to underscore the company’s creative roots. In Collier’s scripted walk and talk, he strategically bumped into Fox stars like “9-1-1: Lone Star’s” Rob Lowe and Gina Torres.
Farhad Massoudi, founder and CEO of Tubi, Fox’s fast-growing ad-supported linear streaming platform, talked up the value of the sheer tonnage of free content that it offers users at a time when subscriber acquisition in the U.S. is clearly slowing. Massoudi preached the gospel of ad-supported free content to a receptive crowd.
“We are one hundred percent ad-supported,” Massoudi said. He stressed that Tubi boasts a broader content library than any other platform as part of its mission to “remove human bias” from the selection of content for the platform. On top of all that, the service is “doubling-down” on original content, such as made-for-Tubi movies featuring predominantly Black casts, which is a fit with its deep library of what Massoudi called “Black cinema.”
The pre-taped presentation that touted concluded with a blooper reel featuring “outtakes” of the upfront presentation featuring humorous bits from from Collier, “The Cleaning Lady” star Élodie Yung, “Next Level Chef” host and longtime Fox star Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Foxx, host and executive producer of game show “Beat Shazam.” Foxx also appeared in a pretaped segment to talk up his new drama series “Alert,” a missing-persons thriller.
Aside from being a mostly pre-recorded event, Fox’s upfront this year was unusual in that it was not preceded by the release of the network’s fall schedule. Due to the fact that dramas “9-1-1” and “The Resident” took longer than expected to close their respective sixth-season renewal deals, Fox opted to give the broad strokes of its plans for the 2022-2023 season. By the time the upfront video began to unspool, Fox confirmed that both shows had been renewed for the 2022-23 season.
After the IMAX-style upfront presentation, Fox executives and talent mingled among sushi and sliders at the after-party complete with meet-and-greet installations for various Fox shows and divisions. “I’ve been drinking since 10 a.m.,” joked Oliver Hudson, co-star of Fox’s drama thriller “The Cleaning Lady,” as he closed the presentation by directing attendees to IRL drinks and bites. Nick Cannon, host of Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” popped in for a stint as DJ.
Jennifer Maas contributed to this report.
(Pictured: Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier)