ABC Upfront: Diversity Push, Strong Clips and Three Other Takeaways

Network chief Paul Lee stressed engagement over TV viewership during his Tuesday presentation.

‎ABC executives trotted out a mix of confounding statistics and strong trailers to downplay a rocky past -- and present an optimistic future -- during its upfront presentation Tuesday.

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The network's chief, Paul Lee, seemed particularly focused on his new crop of shows, which include "big swings" (American Crime), "new voices" (Cristela) and ‎"extraordinary entertainment" (How to Get Away With Murder), when presenting to his Avery Fischer Hall audience of media buyers. To Lee's credit, the clips played well and arguably stronger than rivals', with the room only reminded of ABC's disappointing fourth-place status when upfront roastmaster Jimmy Kimmel took the stage. (Read his best digs here.)

Here are the key takeaways:

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Never Mind ABC -- We're Disney!

If your money was on a Scandal clip to open this year's ABC upfront, we'll take your money now. Instead, the network kicked off the afternoon presentation with an unexpected clip reel featuring footage from the company's other assets, including Snow White, Frozen and Star Wars -- intercut with scenes from Modern Family, Once Upon a Time and The Middle, of course. Anne Sweeney, on stage for her swan song, followed by pushing the "power of the Disney brand," ‎touting Disney, LucasFilm, Marvel, Pixar and ESPN as strongly as she did ABC. 

Shall We Talk About Race?

With Kerry Washington starrer Scandal hitting big, Lee has decided to embrace diversity -- with a vengeance. He rolled out at least four shows, including Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and American Crime, with racial humor and/or politics at its core. The strategy was not subtle, with Lee hammering home his push for a broader multicultural audience. It's a potentially savvy play, with ABC recognizing the changing demographics and economic realities of the ethnic audience in the U.S. 

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The Good News

ABC's clips played better than many others this week, with strong receptions to Shonda Rhimes' How to Get Away With Murder and John Ridley's American Crime. The latter had Lee most excited, with the exec saving its clip for last and characterizing it as a game changer.‎ (The other, musical fairy-tale comedy Galavant, which included a musical performance, didn't play quite as well.)  Black-ish garnered a fair amount of laughs, and creepy entry The Whispers appeared to draw the Lincoln Center audience in.

Stressing Engagement Over TV Eyeballs

Buyers have more content and platform options than ever, but in the absence of a universally accepted currency (unlike Nielsen's TV ratings), they are left to cobble together analytics from multiple sources. Enter the broadcast network ad sales chiefs with their promises of new and dazzling measurement schemes to ensure that every eyeball on every platform will be counted. During her turn on stage, ABC ad sales chief Geri Wang promised buyers "better measurement" on "expanded platforms" and an aggressive push on "dynamic insertion" on VOD. The network's TV ratings -- the fourth-place network is down 5 percent in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic -- were barely mentioned, except when Lee accidentally said the network was "No. 1 for the last four years." (He meant four weeks and corrected himself later, chalking the gaffe up to "wishful thinking.") Rather, Wang and Lee touted nebulous stats, including ABC's "78 percent engagement," its "140 million social connections" and the fact that "50 percent" of the nets "original viewers" come from apps.

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No Sports, No Problem, No Really

With live ratings points increasingly elusive in an on-demand TV market, every network this week has made a point of stressing live events. Presentations from NBC and Fox included lengthy plugs for sports rights, especially the NFL. ABC has few in the way of live sports, with the exception of college football Saturdays and the NBA Finals. But that didn't stop Lee from claiming that ABC "own(s) more than half of all live events in television" before unspooling a clip of the network's various awards shows, including the AMAs, CMAs, the Ryan Seacrest-hosted Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve and the Oscars. The "selfie heard 'round the world" at the Academy Awards telecast last March was touted several times.