Critic's Notebook: NBC, Fox Kick Off Upfronts 2019, But Only One Has a Clear Story

NBC Upfront-The Voice Cast-Publicity-H 2019
Charles Sykes/NBCUniversal

In a perfect world, NBCUniversal might have closed upfronts week on Thursday, saving the performance from its Voice coaches to the very end of the multi-day orgy blending Hollywood storytelling and Madison Avenue money. Then we could have pointed to Adam Levine's dead-eyed dyspeptic performance and said, "Man, he's just saying what we're all feeling."

Instead, the Maroon 5 frontman put a cap on the first of the five broadcast network upfront presentations this week, looking for all the world like he'd spent the weekend at a bacchanal out of a Fellini film and like the imposition of forcing him onto the Radio City Music Hall stage shortly after noon was one to be repaid with a vengeful apathy. Levine's Voice cohort Kelly Clarkson came to play, while he came to fulfill an obligation. Or so it appeared.

Levine represented the nadir of NBCUni's presentation, but hardly its own flat moment, while it's appropriate that Clarkson got to shine on the same day as the network that birthed her career, Fox, made its no-strings-attached upfronts debut.

In macro, as in micro, the upfronts week is all about stories. Small picture, the broadcast networks are trying to sell advertisers on their individual shows, with people on both sides of the bargaining table aware that a daunting percentage of what gets presented each May won't be around for an encore 12 months later. Big picture, the broadcast networks try to concoct an overall story for their company, since advertisers are investing in that grand narrative as much as in all the little ones.

On the first day of Upfronts 2019, Fox had a narrative and NBC did not.

In NBC's case, the lack of narrative was by design. My friends at NBC would say that the narrative could be distilled as "meaningful, smart, safe scale," whatever that means, boiled down even further to "safe." By way of contrast, NBC kept pointing to the other upfronts week participants who will be managing stories about mergers and pushing forward into new digital frontiers. NBC's story was an absence of story, or at least an absence of drama.

NBC accentuated known quantities and stability, including the 21-season run of Law & Order: SVU, a three-season renewal for This Is Us, familiar faces (including Brian Williams for heaven's sake) in the news division, the reliability of the Olympics and even Saturday Night Live at its most creatively complacent, with a lame, seemingly endless Celebrity Family Feud segment.

When there was change, NBCUni chose not to lead with it. Kenan Thompson's Steve Harvey was the centerpiece of the bad SNL sketch, but nobody mentioned that Thompson has a midseason show on NBC (one that will complicate his Studio 8H availability if nothing else). George Cheeks and Paul Telegdy, successors to Bob Greenblatt, weren't given stage time at what was their first upfront as co-chairmen of NBC Entertainment.

Where there was adversity, NBCUni chose to ignore it. Seth Meyers, NBC's roastmaster equivalent to Jimmy Kimmel at ABC, has been puncturing the network's inflated egos for four years, but this was his first truly toothless monologue, with a joke about non-voluntary exits from The Today Show standing as his most pointed barb.

And where there was uncertainty, NBCUni glossed over it. After saying its competitors might be struggling to find their place in the OTT landscape, NBC bluffed confidently by saying only that a service with lots of library content will premiere in 2020 and it will be ad-supported and therefore free, reassuring advertisers that they will have a key role to play and reassuring anybody else that "free" is more important than a name or an actual pact to reacquire The Office for streaming.

NBCUni didn't do a complacent upfront presentation — there were way, way too many stars for that — but  happy to try, for once, to stake ground as the no-drama network.

Fox could not do that. In the aftermath of the Disney merger, Fox Entertainment was scrappy, hungry and seemingly alone. That left it for Charlie Collier, in his first upfront as a broadcast entertainment CEO, to construct a story for advertisers, just hours after Adam Levine capped NBCUni's presentation with a shrug.

Collier did very well. He didn't do perfectly. A fight with Justin Timberlake was staged well enough to cause minor discomfort and uncertainty. But he did well, as did the team that wrote and designed his message.

"What would you do if you had the chance to start all over again?" Collier asked in an opening filled with catchphrases like, "To compete Fox reinvents and to win, Fox reimagines." Aided by graphics, Collier illustrated a schedule built around a three-night fall block that goes from NFL on Thursday to WWE on Friday to college football on Saturday, with Animation Domination and The Masked Singer and the occasional hit like 911 leading the rest of the week. Fox has the World Series and the Super Bowl and a last season of Empire and the return of BH90210 (in the summer).

I'm not completely sure what Fast Breaks and Prediction Pods and Future Now and Absolutely A are. I know those are jargon-y things meant to interest advertisers, and I guess they will. They were definitely more concrete than NBC's veiled hints about how advertisers can drape themselves across the Olympics next summer to an unprecedented degree. But again, NBCUni didn't need to break new ground. It needed to be safe. Fox needed to prove that it's still a real TV network, and that message went across well.

Of course, a lot of how New Fox sold itself was mighty similar to Old Fox, and that's not just talking about the well-received appearance by some members of the BH90210 cast (acknowledging Shannen Doherty's absence, but not honoring Luke Perry's passing). No, I'm referring to the inevitability that every Fox upfront presentation will feature at least several showcases for punch-drunk former sports stars making advertisers bear witness to how poorly they offer commentary on things that aren't football. This year's low point was Terry Bradshaw reference to being kicked off of The Masked Singer by "Alan Thicke" (Robin Thicke) and "the little short guy from Japan" (Detroit-born Korean-American actor Ken Jeong). Oy.

Fox's presentation came in at a flat 90 minutes, after a late start. NBCUni's presentation came close to filling two hours, to which you'd correctly argue, "But they were also presenting stuff from several cable entities," to which I'd even more correctly argue, "Yeah, but somehow they still felt they needed to make time for an interminable three-song set by Luis Fonsi." Even the things that felt like filler jokes from Fox (like multiple punchlines tied to the New York Jets) built to payoffs (a Masked Singer-style cameo from Joe Namath).

Also, just because Fox told a macro story better than NBC sold its lack of macro story doesn't mean Fox won on the all-important micro level of selling its new shows.

Fox's Not Just Me looks like it had tear-jerking family appeal, and Prodigal Son looked like The Following with a sense of humor, but Deputy looked like a fascistic nightmare, like The Shield if we were supposed to think Vic Mackey was daring and cool and Filthy Rich looked like a blander, whiter Empire. NBC gave a much better sell to the Jane Levy vehicle Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, as well as the comedic star power behind Perfect Harmony, Sunnyside and Indebted.

It's better not to burn out on hype on day one of upfronts. We still await ABC, CBS and The CW (plus some big WarnerMedia blob/presentation) and the stories they have to tell or not tell.

Only one thing is for sure: Adam Levine is almost certainly off the hook for the rest of the week.

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