Inside WarnerMedia's Upfront: Comedy Rules, 'Snowpiercer' Scores, Scale Matters

Conan O'Brien, Tracy Morgan, Daveed Diggs and Niecy Nash livened up the company's first upfront pitch to media buyers.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
WarnerMedia content chief Kevin Reilly

WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey opened his first-ever upfront presentation early Wednesday by promising media buyers gathered at Madison Square Garden that the company will not forsake the 30-second spot for SVOD. With more consumers watching on ad-bereft platforms like Netflix instead of linear TV, media buyers probably need the reassurance. And recommitting to liner TV — even if it's only lip service — is becoming a refrain of the 2019 upfront with multiple network groups set to launch direct-to-consumer platforms next year.

Stankey stressed that the new company, “strongly believes” in a two-pronged business model that “supports both subscription and advertising.” To that end, when Kevin Reilly, WarnerMedia’s content chief, took the stage, he revealed that the company will offer an ad-supported — or AVOD — platform in phase two of the OTT launch. That platform will include library content and originals. 

Stankey, who took over the WarnerMedia content assets after decades at AT&T and its precursor Bell, is a notoriously dry executive. And Conan O’Brien leaned into that for his portion of the presentation, which featured well-received clips of returning and new shows including Chad, which has Saturday Night Live alum Nasim Pedrad playing a 14-year-old Persian boy navigating the slings and arrows of a new American high school. 

“I was worried you guys would be a little tight this morning," said O'Brien. "But John Stankey came out and whipped you into a frenzy! He invented the telephone, apparently.”

Like his peers Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers at ABC and NBC, respectively, O’Brien was tasked with skewering his corporate bosses and serving as sort of a human amuse-bouche between pie chart presentations.

“Because it’s AT&T the [after-upfront] reception will be very bad. Because it’s AT&T, the afterparty will only have two bars," he quipped to groans from the audience. "You’re looking at a man with very little time left in the industry.”

O’Brien then teased that there’s a movie in the works about AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Running through the casting roster, he said new WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt would be played by “the guy on the box of Just for Men Ginger,” while he himself would be played by Tilda Swinton. As for Jeff Zucker — who presided over O'Brien's defenestration from The Tonight Show while both were still at NBC — he would be played by Mini Me, aka Verne Troyer. As the crowd guffawed at the split-screen image, O’Brien quipped, “Oh, we go way back, he and I.”

Here are the rest of highlights from the breezy hour-and-15-minute presentation.

CNN Talks Up Trust, Trump Clashes

The company played up CNN's clashes with the Trump administration, beginning the news portion of the event with a video of a White House staffer infamously grabbing a microphone away from chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta and reporter Kaitlin Collins reporting on her banishment from an open-press event. The network brought out the big guns, with key anchors Wolf Blitz, Chris Cuomo, Jake Tapper, Erin Burnett, Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper all taking the stage to make a pitch for "truth" and the importance of facts (their boss, Jeff Zucker, did not present). "The truth has never been easy," Blitzer said. Cooper went last, telling the crowd that "we are living in truly extraordinary times." He added, "There's a lot to do in the coming year, and we've never been more ready for it."

Doubling Down on Snowpiercer

TBS, which has been the portfolio’s comedy destination, will broaden to include drama, and the company is using its ambitious project Snowpiercer to mark the changeThe futuristic drama starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs will premiere next spring, after Turner wraps up its coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball championship, during which the show is sure to get prime promotional placement. And Reilly announced from the stage that they’ve already ordered a second season of the creepy, post-apocalyptic drama, a lengthy preview of which cast a hush over the MSG crowd. 

Speciale Pitches Scale

Scale was a major touch point throughout the presentation, and WarnerMedia ad sales president Donna Speciale pitched the benefits of unification. "All our premium, trusted content under one roof," she told the crowd, "today, you can have one holistic conversation about all of our content across all of our platforms." The exec also touted the marketing opportunities presented by the company's forthcoming streaming service, which will blend subscriptions and advertising. "Adding this platform to our portfolio will complete our engagement loop crossing streaming, linear and digital," she said.

Star power 

It wasn’t just O’Brien, as the presentation featured multiple stand-up interludes. Tracy Morgan took the stage to proselytize about his semi-biographical TBS comedy The Last O.G., which will get a third run. But he also meandered into a riff about the hefty payment he got from Walmart for the horrific 2014 car accident that left him in a coma. “Tracy’s not acting right,” he said referring to himself in the third person. “He’s trying to have sex with an English bulldog. That will be another $5 million for Tracy and $2 million for the puppy.” And Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal of Blindspotting closed the presentation with an f–bomb-laced performance that was interrupted by Niecy Nash, who stars on the TNT crime dramedy Claws. Clad in a skin-tight red dress, the actress took the stage from the front row and asserted that she wanted someone to sing “to her.” “What’s your type?” asked Diggs. “Big, black and bald,” she said. Cue Shaquille O'Neal, who mounted the theater steps to serenade Nash with a verse from (I've Had) The Time of My Life — and it was surprisingly on-key. “I feel moist,” said Nash. As the audience erupted, Diggs closed the event with a shout-out: “WarnerMedia is clearly the place to be. Everybody’s moist right now!”