Inside NBCU's Upfront: Facebook Shade, Seth Meyers' Snark and a Dancing J-Lo

Ten networks were peddled out over two-plus hours, kicking off upfront week with its first literal song and dance.
Peter Kramer/NBCUniversal

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke seems unconcerned with any of the upfront presentations that will follow his during the week's big New York pitch-fest. That was more than evident in Monday's bombastic Radio City Music Hall show that started with a roll call for TV's most-watched portfolio, which announced networks as if they were actors in a Michael Bay movie. 

There was momentary hope that the overly stuffed two-hour-and-11-minute spiel wouldn't go through network-by-network minutiae, something Burke implied he wouldn't subject buyers to this year, before his company did just that — exhaustively running through all of its entertainment, sports and news properties before finally landing on the broadcast network. In fact, it wasn't until the 115-minute mark that the actual pitch even came, after a legitimately well-done spoof of the company's ad sales chairman sitting in for Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook chief's recent Senate hearing. 

The sight of Linda Yaccarino doing the robot in front of Orrin Hatch, railing on the value of Facebook, may even have qualified as hilarious — had it not come so late in the exhaustive show, one that ultimately paid off the patient audience with Jennifer Lopez and the World of Dance cast grinding to Cardi B while flames shot up the back of the stage.   

The Gimmick | Burke called the taped segment that NBCU used to kick off its pitch to media buyers precisely what it was: “Shameless self-promotion.” Execs had lured a seemingly random assortment of stars — among them Today’s Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, Will & Grace’s Debra Messing and Sean Hayes, The Good Place’s Kristen Bell and Ted Danson and Mr. Robot’s Christian Slater — to parody the theme song from Mamma Mia, which corporate sibling Universal Films is rebooting in theaters this summer. Sample lyric: “It’s the upfronts, here we go again/ My, my, oh, how much I missed you.” (Yes, there was also a forced, and pitchy, rhyme about CPMs, too.) 

The Spin | With the annual promise of a "one-stop shop," Burke rattled off reasons ad buyers should give him their money with a list of superlatives that came almost too quickly to fact-check. Many, like NBC’s No. 1 status in primetime five years running, are unassailable. Others, including Today and Nightly News as No. 1 in the morning and evening, respectively, come with caveats: Today is No. 1 for the season, but has endured a challenge from ABC’s Good Morning America of late; and Lester Holt’s news broadcast was topped by ABC’s World News Tonight in March in the critical 25-54 news demo.

The Star Power | Most of the portfolio's marque talent was relegated to the taped musical number, but the drumbeat of eclectic celebrity went from the U.S. women's gold-winning hockey team to Suits addition Katherine Heigl — "I don't think I could have joined the USA Network at a more exciting time," she said, stiffly — and climaxed with the broadcast network near the end. Seth Meyers served as emcee for the last (and easily most enjoyable) act, introducing NBC's new original series, reminding the audience about the popularity of flagship This Is Us and mocking, well, everyone else. "If you had a show in the '90s and your phone didn't ring last week, you must be heartbroken," quipped Meyers, mocking the run of reboots, including NBC's Will & Grace. "You guys, ALF is back, and this time he's a climate-change denier." 

The Favorite | The NBC portion of the presentation made sure to plug new comedies Abby's and I Feel Bad, as well as dramas The Village, The Enemy Within, Manifest and New Amsterdam. But the most real estate was devoted to America's Got Talent. The dominant reality show, which supplanted network neighbor The Voice as the genre's No. 1 performer in 2017, was plugged by its creator and star judge Simon Cowell, who was introduced by AGT winner Darci Lynne, a puppeteer who, fittingly, performed with a stuffed Cowell. “I’ve been on television for 18 years, and now I’m a puppet,” Cowell deadpanned before sneaking in, “Now I knew how Paula felt.”

The Room | Radio City can be difficult to read, but there were more than a few undeniable tepid receptions. (Sorry, Busy Philipps.) What did seem to play was the vaguely political rendition of "This Is Me" — which, in the era of Trump, has become an inclusion anthem and a pointed rebuke of the rhetoric from the seat of power. That was the opener for Telemundo, which made no bones about its immigrant consumers making up a large and growing swath of buyers' potential customers as it hyped the new series Prisionero Numero Uno (Prisoner No. 1), which follows a Mexican man deported from the U.S.

WTF? Moment With all those channels and an overwhelming number of series across them, it was supremely bizarre to see E!'s recently acquired People's Choice Awards get prime pitch placement at the presentation's 15-minute mark. The questionably relevant kudos, which limped off of CBS in 2017 after viewership hit an all-time low, were heralded by E! talent Giuliana Rancic with the enthusiasm her bosses barely offer up for the Olympics. "I know," said Rancic, at the end of a vaguely coherent sizzle reel. "Next level, right?" Something like that. 

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