Inside Fox's Upfront: Off Gimmicks, New 'Masked Singer' and a '90210' Reunion

Many elements of the slimmed down broadcaster's presentation to Madison Avenue ad buyers fell flat.
Courtesy of FOX
Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier

Fox's Charlie Collier trotted out on the Beacon Theatre stage Monday afternoon very much on message.

“Welcome to our startup company,” he said without a whiff of irony.

The pitch came during Collier’s first foray at the broadcast upfront, during which he also wove in shout-outs to his corporate bosses, Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch — as well as the larger broadcast model. “Broadcast works,” said the newly installed Fox Entertainment CEO, who spent the decade prior at cable network AMC.

In his time before the deep-pocketed ad-buying community, Collier heavily touted what a slimmed down Fox has to offer. During an era in which his rivals are only getting bigger and more vertically integrated, Fox is, as he put it, “the right size for this marketplace.” To that end, Collier argued that his network — a reimagined, independent platform, or what was left after the Murdochs sold off several assets in a $71.3 billion deal to Disney — was the only one that has become more advertiser-friendly, not less, since this time last year.

Mixed in amid trailers and canned promo talk, the network spent equal time plugging sports and entertainment programming — to varying degrees of success. Here are the highlights:

What's a "Fox Five?"

In a gimmick that didn’t land particularly well, each Fox cast was asked to describe its projects in five words or less — or the “Fox Five,” as it was dubbed. The 90210 actors seemed to have the most fun with what became a tedious gag, with Tori Spelling earning big laughs with her grammatically questionable effort, “This time there’s no virgins.” To his credit, Collier remained committed, delivering yet another “Fox Five” at the presentation’s halfway point: “Audience stay awake, prize coming.” Sadly, the gimmick continued through the show.

Glossaries Not Provided

Fox ad sales chief Marianne Gambelli touted the network’s “unifying principle” of big moments that must be watched live, a concept that was no doubt music to the ears of beleaguered media buyers chasing an ever-dwindling live linear TV ratings. Indeed, Fox’s fall lineup is heavy on sports with MLB's postseason, Thursday Night Football and this year’s Super Bowl. Gambelli — who joined the company in 2017 as head of ad sales at Fox News before taking over the slimmed-down company’s entire sales portfolio — also mentioned Fox News and Fox Business Network in her live pitch. At last year’s upfront, the network rolled out the comically titled JAZ Pods, shorter 60-second breaks with just two spots that were available only on Sunday nights last season. This time, Gambelli focused on a handful of new sales initiatives and catchphrases that promised to further improve the ad-viewing and ad-buying experience, including Fast Break, which Gambelli described as an evolution of JAZ Pods and more widely available; Prediction Pods, which use social media to keep viewers engaged; and Absolute A, which gives sponsors exclusive ownership of VOD pre-roll.

The WWE Has No Off-Season 

Sports got arguably the biggest push during the presentation, and that brought highs (an always-charming Alex Rodriguez for MLB and an amusing backstage bit from Erin Andrews) and lows (the bumbling, stilted banter between the Saturday College Football crew). But the World Series, Super Bowl and NCAA Football are nothing new. The WWE coming to Fox is. So wrestling got a lot of time under the stage lights, with chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon touting the "young and diverse" audience it would bring in the fall. WWE talent exec Paul "Triple H" Levesque had an even better pitch: "We're live with first-run episodes, 52 weeks a year, no reruns, no off-season." 

Maybe Scripted Should Take a Back Seat

Of Fox's new crop of dramas and live-action comedies, none of the clips seemed to play particularly well in the room. BH90210 — airing in the summer — fared the best, by far, with a slick promotional teaser and a nostalgic applause for the cast. The dramas Not Just Me and Filthy Rich got some polite applause, with perhaps a bit more enthusiasm for Prodigal Son and Deputy. What seemed dead on arrival, however, was the multicamera sitcom Outmatched. It got a few laughs from the crowd, but not for any of its punchlines. 

One Masked Misstep

Terry Bradshaw attempted a joke about the net’s unscripted hit The Masked Singer, saying he was kicked off the show by Alan Thicke (who died in 2016); he meant Robin Thicke, Alan’s son and a judge on The Masked Singer. And that wasn't even the most awkward moment around the network's hit du jour. The 90-minute presentation wrapped with Joe Namath crooning "Luck Be a Lady" dressed like anthropomorphic deer. No further comment necessary. 

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