Inside Disney's Upfront: 5 Networks, Merger Snark and Constance Wu Cracks

Kenny Mayne likened the reorganization to the event horizon of a black hole.
Pawel Kaminski/Walt Disney Television
ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke

“What a difference a year makes.”

Those were ABC’s ad sales chief Rita Ferro’s opening words from the upfront stage Tuesday, as she touted a newly expanded portfolio that now includes FX, National Geographic and studio 20th Century Fox Television. A powerful clip reel, set against such songs as "We Will Rock You," drove that point home — showcasing a mix with snippets from strange bedfellows the Oscars, Modern Family, Grown-ish, Free Solo and American Horror Story.

The packed two-hours-plus presentation (which also saw Disney sibling ESPN join the fray) unfurled much as the company’s press event had earlier in the day, with each network getting time to push its new and forthcoming wares. Mixed in with trailers, brand accolades and Constance Wu jokes was a cadre of announcements, including a fourth season of Freeform’s The Bold Type, and stars, from Eli Manning to John Mayer to the entire cast of Modern Family. They were on hand for a dose of traditional TV nostalgia, heading into the comedy's 11th and final season. 

The standouts, however, were comedy interludes from upfront roast-master (and newly reupped ABC late-night host) Jimmy Kimmel and ESPN’s ever-salty Kenny Mayne. Here are the highlights:

More Networks, More Money to Spend

Ferro kicked off the company’s presentation with an array of unverifiable data points meant to underscore the Disney portfolio’s reach. To wit: The portfolio notched 4 billion engagements across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter; collectively, consumers spent over 45 billion hours with “our stories across brands”; and every month 275 million people consume content and more than 145 million of those people — so, more than half — are watching on digital. Of course, advertisers are in desperate need of linear impressions, but there wasn’t much talk of those. There were, however, video montages of product integration for Google and Miller Beer, the latter on FX’s portfolio of TV-MA shows including Sons of Anarchy, which wrapped in 2014, long before FX was part of the Disney portfolio.

Karey Burke Kicks Off Her Era at ABC

At this point, ABC’s newly installed entertainment president Karey Burke likely needs no introduction. Nonetheless, she got one from Modern Family matriarch Julie Bowen, who praised her new boss as a “fearless, funny, force of nature” who, she added, also happens to be a mother to five. Burke used her time onstage to peddle plans to once again make ABC destination No. 1 for women, joking that “where women go, men follow.” That strategy will rely on a mix of scripted and unscripted as well as live events, not unlike the Oscars. In one of many moments of true humanity, rare on an upfront stage, Burke reminded the theater that this past year’s Academy Awards telecast came during her first few months on the job, which meant she was greeted with such headlines as “unmitigated disaster” and “a fiasco.” (To her great relief, the award show delivered double-digit gains.) During her time onstage, Burke rolled tape with Tiffany Haddish, who will soon host Kids Say the Darndest Things (“It’s going to be fucking hilarious — I mean, darn funny,” quipped Haddish) and welcomed the cast of Modern Family. Before signing off, however, Burke delivered a particularly well-timed zinger, adding to her mention of Fresh Off the Boat on ABC's schedule with "still starring Constance Wu."

Landgraf Makes His First Disney Pitch

In his first appearance on Disney’s stage, FX chief John Landgraf stood beneath the network’s “Fearless” tagline and peddled his collection of prestige fare. After touting the network's impressive Emmy and Golden Globe haul, unrivaled in the basic cable space, he rolled tape on four forthcoming projects. Three of them were dramas — Fargo, starring Chris Rock in its fourth installment; Mrs. America, fronted by Cate Blanchett; and the tech thriller Devs — and the fourth, a comedy centered on rapper/comic Lil Dicky, to which Landgraf teased: “If you don’t know who Lil Dicky is, ask your kids.”

ESPN Gets Folded In, Too  

ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt anchored the sports net’s supersized portion of the multi-net presentation, which included pitches for Monday Night Football and new network ACCN (Atlantic Coast Conference Network) launching in August. Van Pelt, who anchors the midnight edition of SportsCenter, reminded Disney CEO Bob Iger and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, seated in the audience, that he had to get back to work after his turn on the Lincoln Center stage, and asked if the $58 per diem still applied. For the NFL portion of the pitch, Van Pelt had some help from New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and rookie running back Saquon Barkley. After marveling at the size of Barkley’s legs, Van Pelt asked the duo to riff on the culture of the NFC versus the AFC. Manning noted that there wasn’t “much love in that division” before segueing to the Giants’ Monday Night Football matchups for the upcoming season. Van Pelt had one request: “Just keep those games close until late in the fourth quarter — that would be a good thing.”

Kenny Mayne Won't Be Silenced by a Reorganization

Without a standalone ESPN presentation this year, Mayne still got his time on the stage. The sports journalist and snark engine did not waste the opportunity, adding some much-needed salt to the traditionally PG (save Kimmel) Disney event. He mocked the recent corporate reorganization, showing one absurdly crowded Mickey Mouse-shaped chart — "This chart was supposed to simplify things! Endemol Shine Group? What the hell is that?" — before likening the whole post-Fox acquisition scenario to a black hole. "To simplify it, there goes your money, and it's never coming back," he said, pointing to the image of an event horizon behind him. Mocking the crowd of ad-buyers, he took the piss out of sales jargon — "Direct to brand? I guess that means fleecing you directly" — and even mocked his top boss. "Bog Iger has got better things to do," Mayne said, pretending as if the exec wasn't sitting 30 feet right in front of him. "He's trying to figure out what the fuck the re-org is about."

Nat Geo's Offers a Smart Response to 'Genius' Criticism 

The first two seasons of the scripted miniseries Genius focused on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso — and earned Nat Geo plenty of criticism for dwelling on the accomplishments of white men. Version 3.0 focuses on Aretha Franklin, so even though it hasn't even been cast, network chief Courteney Monroe made a big point of pitching the new project, trotting out executive producer Brian Grazer, who had a few issues reading from the teleprompter, and, more excitingly, the Harlem Gospel Choir. The robed group filled the stage and the aisles for a quick and well-received medley of the Queen of Soul's greatest hits. 

See what's new, renewed and canceled at every network with THR's scorecards for ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW. For complete upfronts coverage, bookmark