The Best, Worst and Weirdest Moments of Upfronts Week 2022

Warner Bros. Discovery/Disney/NBCUniversal/Paramount Global

That’s all, folks. The TV industry’s return to in-person upfront presentations across Manhattan concluded Thursday with the joyful sound of Stevie Wonder rocking “Superstition” at the CW’s New York City Center event.

Among those who presented this week, during what has long been traditionally considered the broadcast networks’ time to shine in front of advertisers, were NBCUniversal, Fox Corp, Telemundo, TelevisaUnivision, Disney, YouTube, Warner Bros. Discovery, Paramount and the CW. It was evident that NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS are no longer the only stars of the show here, and the Big Four took their place among the streamers and cable channels touted by parent companies throughout the week.

Now that it’s all been said, spun and quipped, Variety‘s team of TV reporters and editors have taken a step back to assess the highs, lows and trends of upfronts week.

Back when they were the broadcast upfronts, the presentations often lasted as long as three hours, as networks sometimes rolled out long looks at each pilot. When a network was feeling really bullish, like the year ABC premiered “Modern Family,” it screened the entire show for the crowd of media buyers. And then there was the detailed analysis each network would give on its schedule, and why this year’s lineup was bolstered by, of course, their “best pilot season ever.” Cut to 2022 and the return of the upfronts — but not the return of the pilot cutdowns.

Throughout the week there were very few actual trailers or promos of new shows, as the congloms opted for more of a holistic pitch about their entire corporate offerings. ABC, NBC and Fox didn’t mention their fall schedules at all — and actually, in an upfront first, Fox didn’t even have a schedule ready to share. At Paramount, which did quickly roll through CBS; fall timeslots, the leads of the various current “Star Trek” TV franchises were employed to tell the audience to go home and watch the trailers on an upfront website instead.

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What does Comic-Con have that the upfronts don’t? Maybe not much after Kevin Feige appeared at the Disney upfront Tuesday for a portion of the company’s presentation that could have wowed Hall H. Feige teased Marvel’s upcoming Disney+ shows “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” “Secret Invasion,” “Echo” and the second season of “Loki,” bringing out Samuel L. Jackson a.k.a. Nick Fury and “She-Hulk” star Tatiana Maslany to help. He also revealed the trailer and premiere date for “She-Hulk” and announced the upcoming start of production on the second season of “Loki,” which he announced is the most-viewed of Disney+’s Marvel series.

The upfronts don’t usually play blue, but when you have Amy Schumer on stage (at Disney!) and Lizzo speaking her truth about her juices at Warner Bros Discovery, anything’s possible. The most unexpected uttering of the term came right after Lizzo when WBD’s JB Perrette repeated Lizzo’s reference to her “p juice.” (And no, he didn’t say “p.”)

“SNL” star Pete Davidson made a different kind of, but equally raunchy, “p” joke during the NBCUniversal upfront Monday when he nicknamed Peacock “the ‘Cock” while teasing his new show “Bupkis.” “We’re going to be on Peacock, a streamer that’s responsible for so many great shows like ‘MacGruber’ and the reruns of ‘The Office.’ So look out for our new show, streaming on the ‘Cock! Get ready to be filled with long, thick stories!”

After two years of watching virtual upfronts on their screens, media buyers returned to in-person events… to watch upfronts on their screens. Fox kicked things off with 90% of their presentation on massive displays, but others also relied heavily on screens to showcase their messages, including Paramount’s litany of pre-taped “60 Minutes” packages. Some of the biggest stars appeared remotely, such as Oprah Winfrey at WBD and Jimmy Kimmel, who was forced to give his annual roast via video after testing positive for COVID.

Just when you thought the old way of doing upfronts was over, an odd staple of the old-school upfronts returned this year: Actors from shows appearing on stage — but in character. Broadcast’s two new hit comedies were represented at their respective upfronts. In both cases — Disney with ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” and Paramount with CBS’ “Ghosts” — decided to bring those shows’ stars out as the characters they play on TV — not as themselves.

The CW placed three new series orders last week, with each of those projects featuring a different “Supernatural” star: prequel “Walker, Independence,” produced by “Walker” star Jared Padalecki; “Supernatural” prequel series “The Winchesters,” produced by Jensen Ackles and his wife Danneel Ackles; and DC Comics drama “Gotham Knights,” starring Misha Collins. Playing to its history and audience — and through that, its advertisers — the CW brought that trio on stage at the end of its upfront presentation Thursday, following plugs for each of their respective new series, for a little “Supernatural” reunion alongside CW boss Mark Pedowitz.

Hollywood legend Sylvester Stallone came out to a roar of applause at Paramount Global’s upfront presentation Wednesday. The “Rocky,” “Rambo” and “Expendables” star was the talk of Carnegie Hall when he appeared to promote “Tulsa King,” his upcoming Paramount+ series from “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan. Sly had to do little else but stand on stage to make his many fans among the Madison Avenue-heavy crowd go wild, though he did still offer a few kind words about real-life cowboy Sheridan, the golden boy of Paramount and his prolific way with words. “I couldn’t believe it. We were on the phone on Monday. By Wednesday-Thursday we had a full script. I committed to it like that,” he said, snapping his fingers, “it was bold.”

In addition to Stevie Wonder, musical performances this year included Kelly Clarkson (NBCU), Miley Cyrus (NBCU), Trace Adkins (Fox), Mickey Guyton and LeAnn Rimes (Paramount), Jennifer Hudson (WBD), Lizzo and Jon Batiste (YouTube).

David Zaslav made his inaugural pitch to advertisers since the closing of the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger. Zaslav touted the strength of the newly combined companies across scripted, unscripted, and sports programming. Warner Bros. Discovery pulled out all the stops, bringing out stars like Hudson, Chip and Joanna Gaines, a Property Brother (Jonathan Scot), John Cena, Shaquille O’Neal and Lizzo.

What they didn’t do was rep the “WB” side with their on-stage execs, which reinforced how solidly Zaslav’s existing Discovery team has taken the reins of the combined entity. Kathleen Finch, chief lifestyle brands officer for WBD, and Perrette, as well as new CNN chief Chris Licht. Absent from the stage were the handful of surviving WarnerMedia execs, notably HBO and HBO Max content chief Casey Bloys, who is now in charge of the Gaineses’ ad-supported Magnolia Network.

Live sports are a major staple of linear television given the declining ratings of scripted programming. To that end, the legacy media companies heavily featured their sports offerings throughout the upfront week. NBA legend O’Neal was a particular highlight during the Warner Bros. Discovery upfront when he repeatedly mocked his “Inside the NBA” co-host Charles Barkley, including asking David Zaslav if he can punch Barkley in the face “just once.”

And while the NFL was a major component of several sports highlights reels, there were also a number of NFL alternatives prominently featured during the week. Fox served up brief pre-taped remarks from its high-priced new recruit to the broadcast booth, superstar quarterback Tom Brady, and touted its partnership with the recently relaunched United States Football League (USFL), while Disney announced it had reached a deal with the XFL under Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia to air games on ESPN, ABC, and FX. 

And to top it all off, Disney brought out the hottest properties in sportscasting, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, whose alternate “Monday Night Football” telecast (or “Megacast,” in ESPN’s argot) was an instant hit this winter. “We’re going to produce some more Megacasts,” Peyton assured the crowd.

Streaming customers have long been accustomed to seeing no commercials while they watch, but those days may soon be numbered. Virtually every upfront presentation featured lengthy segments about AVOD streaming services under legacy media umbrellas, including Peacock, Paramount+, Hulu, Tubi, and more. And with Netflix moving to add an ad-supported option, don’t expect streaming to be ad-free forever.

YouTube, in the internet video giant’s first incursion into upfront week, didn’t have much to talk about in the way of original programming, having largely axed its scripted and unscripted division earlier this year. Instead, it touted its massive reach and flew in big-name creators like Mark Rober and MrBeast (aka Jimmy Donaldson) to entertain ad buyers — with the latter gifting hundreds of MrBeast-branded chocolate bars to attendees to sweeten the pitch.

Nicole Byer for the win. The host of TBS’ “Wipeout” and Netflix’s “Nailed It,” played a role on stage at the NBCU, Warner Bros Discovery and Paramount Global upfronts. She’s on so many shows on so many platforms that Byer could have also been the face of the Netflix upfront, had there been one.

Univision had a fun segment where ad sales chief Donna Speciale learned salsa dance moves from two celebrity pro hoofers.. There have long been segments in upfronts where the ad-sales chief does a pre-taped stunt — former ABC ad honcho Geri Wang once went through the paces of the obstacle course “Wipeout” — but this one had a heartwarming twist as it showed the executive from a non-Hispanic background working to learn more about the culture of viewers served by Univision. Speciale was initially daunted by the challenge, but by the end, was able to dance and even donned appropriate costumers.

More than one upfront presentation included jokes made at the expense of Netflix, which after years of insisting it would never let commercials get past the big red N is considering doing so in the near future.

During Jimmy Kimmel’s 10-minute standup bit at the Disney upfront Tuesday, which was live streamed in due to the late-night host’s latest positive COVID test: “After watching those smug bastards choke the life out of us for years, it feels really good to see them stoop to selling you advertising….Oh, everybody loves ‘Bridgerton,’ right? How do you think they’ll love it when it’s interrupted by a Xyrtec commercial every four minutes.”

NBCUniversal put on quite the Bravo-centric show during its presentation in Radio City Music Hall on Monday. A recorded segment of a Bravo “superfan” couple fighting over the chance to win Andy Cohen’s giveaway ticket to the upcoming return of BravoCon led to an on-stage extravaganza. The video screen pulled away to reveal those same actors on stage at the mini BravoCon, running around and being wow-ed by Cohen and “Bravolebs” from “Top Chef,” “Vanderpump Rules,” “Project Runway” and more. The whole thing ended in a confetti shower, which remained scattered on Radio City’s shiny floor through the rest of the much tamer segments of NBCU’s upfront.

(Pictured clockwise from top: David Zaslav, Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia, Pete Davidson and Edie Falco, and Sylvester Stallone)