How The Upfronts Took A Backseat

If the recent past is any indication, the old-line broadcast networks -- now owned by huge media conglomerates -- will get short shrift at next week’s prime-time upfront presentations, if they get any attention at all.

It may seem ironic to some, since the upfronts sprang from the network television business and flourished for decades as network-only and network-first presentations.

But now, all the broadcast networks except Fox are part of companies with dozens of platforms to sell this spring -- most notably, ad-supported streaming tiers -- that will be far more visible at the upfronts.

Consider last spring’s Disney upfront presentation at the warehouse-like Pier 36 in downtown Manhattan on the East River. 

This meandering, two-hour presentation, presided over by former Disney CEO Bob Chapek, gave substantial stage time to Disney units such as Hulu and ESPN, which got an entire half-hour to strut their stuff -- literally a quarter of the event.

If the company’s broadcast network, ABC, was mentioned at all in the context of the parent company’s spring sales pitch to advertisers, then it eluded me. 

When the event was over, I encountered some of the heads of the big station groups exiting the building together whose properties include ABC affiliates, and who had traveled to New York from all over the U.S. to share in the joys of Upfront Week.

None of them spoke on the record, but they were not joyful about an upfront from which ABC and its new shows -- the ones they would be supporting and airing in the fall -- were excluded.

Indeed, the only connection to ABC at last year’s Disney upfront was Jimmy Kimmel, whose annual upfront monologue exists not to promote Disney and ABC, but to excoriate them. Thus, the only context in which ABC was mentioned at all was a negative one.

After referring to Disney sales chief Rita Ferro as “the queen of b------t,” Kimmel turned his attention to ABC.

“ABC … you know, we finished the year in last place in total viewers and in the demo and yet somehow we are the No. 1 entertainment network for the third year in a row! How is that possible?,” he asked. “I’ll let you in on a little secret -- it isn’t!” 

Before the wave of consolidation that resulted in today’s generation of TV giants, various units then owned by some of them mounted upfront presentations of their own.

In the 2010s, the presentation “season” ran for two-and-a-half months with a dozen or more upfronts starting traditionally in early March with Nickelodeon, then owned by Viacom and now Paramount Global.

In 2016, for example, Viacom held a solo upfront for Comedy Central and another one that combined TV Land, Nick at Nite and CMT.

Up until the late 2010s, ABC and CBS still held network-first upfronts. But CBS began to recede in importance at the upfronts following the merger that created ViacomCBS in 2019, now Paramount Global.

This year marks the first one in memory that an upfront will not be held at Carnegie Hall, which was the traditional venue of CBS’ upfronts for decades.

Paramount Global isn’t even having an upfront, opting instead for private meetings and dinners for upfront presentations.

The NBCUniversal upfront at Radio City Music Hall in 2016 may have been the first one in which a company’s broadcast network was positioned on equal par with all the company’s other properties -- in that case, NBCU’s portfolio of basic cable networks in the era before streaming.

Instead of a network-only upfront focused on NBC, the upfront that year included all of NBCU’s ad-supported networks. 

Here, too, the owners and CEOs of the nation’s largest TV station groups, some of whom I talked to, were disappointed to witness basic cable networks such as E! and Syfy sharing equal time with NBC.

Despite the way they felt about it, NBCU was moving in another direction: the future. 

“Why one upfront? It’s because this is how we sell, as one portfolio,” NBCU sales chief Linda Yaccarino, now chairman of global advertising and partnerships, said at its upfront that year.

And just like that, “each sold separately” was a thing of the past.
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