The broadcast network upfront presentations returned to New York last week, although they’re not really about broadcast — or networks — anymore. The media buyers were back, executives were back, talent returned, and members of the press were also there.
But here’s what wasn’t back: The shows. The entertainment conglomerates shared tiny glimpses of upcoming offerings: A short peek at the revived “Night Court” and “Quantum Leap” plus George Lopez comedy “Lopez vs. Lopez” at NBCUniversal, a taste of “Supernatural” spinoff “The Winchesters” at The CW, Fox’s soapy “Monarch” and animated series “Grimsburg” and “Krapopolis,” and a first glimpse at Sylvester Stallone’s “Tulsa King” at the Paramount Global upfront.
Wait, what network is “Tulsa King” on? The only new show to get any major attention at Paramount Global wasn’t for a network at all, but streamer Paramount+. Media buyers curious about CBS’ new series “So Help Me Todd,” “Fire Country,” “The Real Love Boat” and “East New York” had to go online to watch their respective trailers.
At NBCUniversal, a new show for Peacock starring Pete Davidson and Edie Falco got more of a spotlight than just about anything on broadcast. At Disney, we learned very little about new dramas “Alaska” and “The Rookie: Feds,” and no one from ABC even stepped on stage. But Marvel boss Kevin Feige and Disney Studios head Sean Bailey had a chance to show clips from upcoming Disney+ offerings.
The marginalization of the broadcasters at the upfronts is nothing new: Presentations have been moving toward a new message for some time, as the congloms sell across broadcast, cable and digital platforms. And the ongoing mergers and acquisitions throughout the business mean that there’s a lot more to cover than there used to be.
Warner Bros. Discovery took over the Wednesday morning upfronts slot once utilized by Turner — which meant TBS, TNT, TruTV and Adult Swim. Now, those are just four entities in a sprawling company of 40 networks and, of course, two streamers in HBO Max and Discovery+. Even Fox, the most independent of the Big Four,
concentrated on Fox Sports, Fox News and Tubi before getting to the broadcast network.
Network presentations used to be hours long — we’re talking Marvel-movie length — featuring generous samples of drama and comedy pilots to give media buyers an immediate feel for what these shows were all about. Sometimes, networks were so bullish on their pilots that they would screen entire episodes right smack in the middle of their presentations. ABC did it with “Modern Family,” which kicked off the smash hit’s long run. NBC did it, too, with the “Friends” spinoff “Joey,” which … well, OK, wasn’t such a great idea in hindsight.
CBS would have multiple suits on the Carnegie Hall stage, giving their intense pitch for why moving, say, “Survivor” to Thursdays opposite NBC’s lineup was a masterstroke (for a while, it was) or how the new Friday series “The Fugitive” was going to be their new smash hit (not quite — that turned out to be the lead-out, something called “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”).
Perhaps it makes sense to keep these presentations shorter and let media buyers catch the trailers on their own time. Even though CBS didn’t share clips of its new shows, the network was the only one of the Big Four to run down its schedule and quickly give the audience a glimpse of its fall strategy. (Beyond the Big Four, The CW offered up the one presentation that was about a single network, affording it the ability to include multiple sizzle reels, plus talent walk outs for new shows and more.)
But really, live sports are keeping the lights on for the broadcasters — and even cablers — at this point. No surprise, then, that the legacy media companies leaned hard into their sports offerings. Fox Sports touted the eventual arrival of superstar quarterback Tom Brady to the announcing booth and showcased its partnership with the relaunched United States Football League. Disney brought out Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia to reveal their deal to air the revived XFL on ESPN, ABC and FX; the company also leaned heavily on Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, whose “Monday Night Football” “megacast” has been a big hit. Warner Bros. Discovery relied on NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal to tout its sporting interests.
“Recently there have been headlines saying, ‘advertising is back.’ I didn’t know it had left,” quipped Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier in a pre-taped upfronts pitch that did hold a kernel of truth: Netflix’s recent troubles couldn’t have come at a better time for upfront week: Hulu, Paramount+, Peacock, HBO Max and Discovery+ all have ad options; Tubi is ad-supported only; and Disney+’s ad tier is coming soon. Netflix’s entry into the advertising space could also be available shortly.
Perhaps, by next year, Netflix will be in the upfronts game as well. And maybe the streaming giant will spur traditional media companies to bring more sizzle back to their presentations. You might have a stunning platform, amazing reach, tremendous
heft and a growing, global subscription rate. But if you don’t have the shows, none of that will last for long. Media buyers left last week’s upfront presentations with a better idea of how the conglomerates are leveraging their streamers and bulking up their consumer offerings. But what’s the next must-see show? There’s probably not a single media buyer who could tell you a new series they’re bullish on in the coming season.
This isn’t just any business: It’s show business. But this year, the networks forgot the “show.”