Critic's Notebook: ABC's Upfront Gets Buried in Walt Disney TV Excess

DISNEY 2019 UPFRONT EXPERIENCE - John Landgraf-Walt Disney Television Publicity 2 -H 2019
Courtesy ofPawel Kaminski/Walt Disney Television

In honor of upfronts week, I've been working on ways to merge product integration into my columns, so let me try this:

I'm a sucker for Golden Corral (or really any restaurant that boasts of its "endless buffet"). It isn't that they do any one thing particularly well, but how can you not love a restaurant where if you just keep eating and eating and eating (and sitting and sitting and sitting), you can watch the meal service change around you — from breakfast to lunch to dinner — just as one detour in the line can lead you from so-so pasta to a so-so carving station to a really good fresh yeast roll?

This is why when I tell you that the Walt Disney Television upfront presentation on Tuesday felt like a trip to Golden Corral, Bob Iger and company shouldn't take offense. Who doesn't like walking down one aisle for candied bacon, getting updated on a new season of Fargo, stopping for a brief salad bar detour, hearing about a renewal for The Bold Type, loading up at the chocolate fountain and closing with Jimmy Kimmel accurately warning that broadcast TV is dead and the only prophet who sees the light is Constance Wu?

I'm not sure I would necessarily recommend that Disney do this again for future upfronts. The combination of ABC Entertainment, ABC News, ESPN, Freeform, FX Networks and National Geographic meant that Tuesday's presentation was well over two hours, featuring a "halftime" monologue by Kenny Mayne at the upfront's auxiliary seating hall, complete with puppies, who were definitely the yeast rolls of this particular event. Seriously, have you had Golden Corral's yeast rolls when they're fresh out of the oven? Delicious.

That brings me to possibly the biggest innovation of the Disney TV Hyper-Mega-Uber-Plex: There were commercials during the darned upfront! Maybe this is a thing that's happened in the past, but I don't know if I've seen it before. Between each division's mini-presentation, there was a branded advertisement in which a company talked about their own successful experiences working with ABC or Disney or ESPN or whatever, while also showing their logo and repeating their corporate name multiple times. Was it shameless or brilliant? Yes, it was.

The biggest loser in this whole circus — not to be confused with The Biggest Loser, returning to USA Network next season — was probably ABC Entertainment, which got the presentation's anchor position, but still took the stage after a fair amount of audience wilting. Or maybe the audience was just saving its energy. The stars of The Bold Type were so excited about their renewal, but if there was any buzz in the crowd, it sure didn't come through on the streaming feed. No, I'd say ABC Entertainment was treated not even like the real chocolate fountain, in Golden Corral terms, but like the white chocolate fountain, a luxury dessert item that assumes you were able to leave room not just after all of the fresh yeast rolls, but after the sundae bar, too.

Some eyebrows were raised after ABC picked up its smallest slate of new shows in recent memory, leaving several presumptive sure-things out in the cold — as Constance Wu would put it, "the lucky ones" — but maybe ABC's Karey Burke didn't pick up 10 new shows because she knew how little time she'd been allotted at the upfront. As it stands, we saw trailers for the promising Black-ish prequel Mixed-ish — chided, not improperly, by Kimmel for a title you don't want to say five times fast — Cobie Smulders as a hard-edged detective in Stumptown; Allison Tolman, whom I will watch in anything, adopting a kid who's probably an alien in Emergence; and the midseason drama For Life. Who at Disney TV is going to care that for me, a lowly critic who doesn't take out advertising, the only programming I came out of this upfront looking forward to is the upcoming Chris Rock season of Fargo, which hasn't shot a single second yet?

I feel like ABC spent more time teasing the final season of Modern Family, which will conclude next May with Second Lily sitting on the Iron Throne. Co-creator Steve Levitan reminded attendees that when Modern Family was picked up, ABC showed the full pilot at the upfront, an extraordinarily rare step that made it clear to all in attendance that that series was the thing the network was most excited for. That was a simpler upfront and a simpler time, because if you asked me what Disney TV is most excited about after this upfront, I'd tell you that the answer appears to be, "Complete and total ubiquity."

Over the two-plus hours, Disney TV was able to go from direct-to-consumer chairman Kevin Mayer to The Mayor [of TV John Landgraf], to the Muir [news anchor David] to John Mayer. The generally established two-hour time window was exceeded, and that's without presentations from Disney+, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Daenerys XD, Caffeine-Free Disney or the National Geographic Monkey Channel.

Kimmel, who remains the golden standard of ego-deflating upfronts monologuists, got some big laughs in closing the upfront, and yet it's hard to imagine that the crowd wasn't feeling a bit beaten to submission, which was basically the message Disney TV was laying down. Whether executives were talking about Disney's "portfolio" or "content suite" or assortment of "ad-supported platforms," advertisers were geese and Disney TV's message was that it was time to make some foie gras.

It's like when it's 11 a.m. and you just got seconds on biscuits and gravy and the Golden Corral staff chooses that moment to bring out the prime rib.

Man, hope you saved room for CBS and The CW.

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