Are What’s Left Of The Upfronts Now Just Fantasy TV?

Not all that long ago, the media world revolved around upfront week, the official kickoff just before Memorial Day to a spirited series of glitzy presentations, lavish parties lasting deep in the newly balmly New York nights, numerous June late nights where negotiations for the upcoming season would accelerate in the hopes of getting it all done by Julu 4th so that Hamptons weekends and family vacations wouldn’t be too disrupted, and buyers and sellers could quickly go back to being frenemies that would exchange expense account meals every few weeks just to keep tabs on their deals.

This decade, that sure sign of summer has been seemingly permanently altered, first by COVID, then by mega-mergers, and now by a writer’s strike that despite efforts to the contrary have made this ritual a shadow of what it once was, even as the usual first day presentations from NBCU and FOX are scheduled to take place later today.  In-person events, thank goodness, but ones that will be disrupted by picketers outside and the lack of presence of many stars inside,  Including many of the actual stars–the executives–who drove much of the excitement and revenue in past years.

The NBCU presentation will feature two interim executives–interim CEO Mike Cavanaugh and interim ad sales chief Mark Marshall–unveiling plans for a fall broadcast network schedule that features plenty of titles but no details or assurances how many of them will actually air or when.  They will premiere three new scripted series that, in a salute to long-term planning, actually have some episodes in the can, as one of the few executives with tenure and no interim in front of his title explained to THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Rick Porter last week:

“We’re in a pretty good position with our schedule because over the last few years, we’ve moved into a year-round development and production cycle. A lot of the shows we have announced for the fall, we already have episodes produced,” Jeff Bader, president entertainment program planning strategy at NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, told The Hollywood Reporter.  NBC’s new series — dramas Found and The Irrational and comedy Extended Family — were all picked up outside the traditional development cycle and thus filmed several episodes each before writers struck on May 1. (Found was originally set to premiere in February before being pushed back to fall.).  Unscripted shows The Voice and The Wall and sports on Saturday and Sunday nights will also help fill out the schedule.

And in a nod to the type of attitude that will certainly rankle the picketers, the executive doubled down that the network has a few Plan Bs as well:

Should a prolonged strike delay the start of those series, Bader said NBC could move some programming set for midseason — including dramas Magnum P.I. and La Brea and game show Weakest Link — into the fall. Magnum and Weakest Link both have the second halves of 20-episode orders ready, and La Brea stayed in production after its second season concluded.

Which means, of course, that the schedule Bader put together, which places the three new series behind established hits THE VOICE, LAW AND ORDER: SVU and last winter’s surprisingly successful reboot of NIGHT COURT, may either be in place for a few weeks, based on exactly how many episodes of the new shows (not to mention NIGHT COURT itself) will be finished, or the premieres will be delayed until a longer arc of originals is possible–whenever that may be.  As the strike grows in momentum and breadth there are already signs where post-production and unscripted shoots will be disrupted.

So while Mike and Mark In The Morning are attempting to assure their clients, let alone the media and business reporters in attendance, that all in OK at 30 Rock, it will largely be discussions of philosophy and pivoting, prioritizing Peacock as a focus, for example, in a manner such as what Marshall described to THR’s Alex Weprin in a separate interview last week:

Peacock is practically a mature business (if not quite as scaled as some of its streaming competitors), and the company is using it, in conjunction with its linear TV assets and digital platforms, as a piece of a larger puzzle.

“All of these distribution agreements that we did have played with this idea that we wanted to control our own ad sales, of our own product,” Marshall says. “It is a little scary when you look at it and think about fragmentation, but I think the positive for a marketer is if you look at NBC, and then you look at Peacock, together they reach 159 million people. There’s only 10% duplication across that 159 million people. It’s finding new audiences in different places, this has really been the holy grail for marketers for years.”

He gives the example of Saturday Night Live, which dominates its unusual linear TV timeslot.

“It’s also one of the top shows on YouTube, and it’s a huge show on on Twitter as well. In theory that could have been three different salespeople a year ago,” Marshall says.

Yep, those repeats do hold up very well across platforms, Mark.

But unlike two of its main competitors, NBC is at least making an attempt to do things the old-fashioned way.  FOX’s afternoon presentation will reportedly not unveil any definitive schedule.  With Friday and Saturday nights dedicated to live sports, not to mention high-rated weekend afternoon college and pro football windows and post-season baseball,  FOX is tending to shrug its shoulders at the potential of, say, new episodes of ACCUSED being delayed.  And its sales chief Marianne Gambelli will also be touting its ad-supported streaming business, now fully under the purview of FOX management, instead of time slots and details:

“Our portfolio leans into live, live news, live sports, a very precise amount of entertainment and then Tubi, for which growth has been explosive over the past year,” Gambelli told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “So obviously we’re bringing that to market as a very important product for us. And to monetize that growth as sort of like a digital always-on platform.  [With Tubi] you have premium content at scale, with all the digital attributes around targeting and data and ease of programmatic buying, so it’s like the best of both worlds,” Gambelli says. “And I think that the audience has already shifted and has gotten very comfortable with these platforms. The money is following.”

Meanwhile, CBS, in the midst of its first upfront in decades without the brilliant Kelly Kahl at the helm, already announced its schedule last week, with both its New York presentation and a planned Los Angeles party last week both scrubbed, the latter in deference to the Writers’ Strike.  (The same reason was given by Netflix, which had grabbed the Wednesday afternoon window that CBS held for years, turning their presentation into a virtual one–Ted Sarandos apparently had some concerns for his safety? ).

Not that CBS really needed the expense and the time to tell their story.  The network’s big news was limited to the launch of two procedural dramas–the GOOD WIFE spin-off ELSBETH, featuring Carrie Preston reprising her daffy attorney role in a new venue, and the supposedly well-testing but somewhat contrived reboot of MATLOCK, with Kathy Bates as the lead in a reimagined version of the eponymous role.  Not that these shows are going beyond their pilots anytime soon, mind you.  I suppose that THE GOOD FIGHT, which has several seasons of little-seen but acclaimed episodes ready to be shown, and the original Andy Griffith-led epsiodes of the original MATLOCK, could fill the libear network voids.  Paramount Global will indeed take some time this week to showcase its streaming service, the one newly dubbed +SHOWTIME, and yes, both GOOD FIGHT and the OG MATLOCK can be found there, too.

There will be a little bit of news later this week when ABC finally makes up its mind and does its presentation, but in the light of the new reality of streaming-first and scheduling abiquity, the fanfare and excitement that once was upfront week is largely non-existant.  So many executives who once attended these presentations in recent years are now looking for work.  The advertisers and agency folk have somewhat more stability, but they ultimately showed up for the booze and the buffet rather than the stars and the shows anyway.

Upfront week used to have the excitement and newsworthiness of Opening Day.  This year feels more like my fantasy draft.  Largely virtual, steeped in data and lacking context and contact.   I hope that those who are attending this week will have a better fantasy year than the one I’ve been having so far.   And do send my regards.

Until next time…





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