NBCUniversal Kicks Off Upfront Week With More Trailers, Fewer Talking Points and a Nearly Naked Mariah Carey

2016 NBC Universal Upfront Stage -May 16, 2016--Mariah Carey-H 2016
Peter Kramer/NBCUniversal

In what might have been the world’s first feature-length sizzle reel, NBC, Telemundo and the sprawling NBCUniversal cable suite joined forces in an inaugural joint upfront presentation on Monday morning — and it’s safe to say that Radio City Music Hall has never seen so many trailers.

The pitches were surprisingly brief, though ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino, NBC Entertainment topper Bob Greenblatt (sans Dolly Parton) and cable queen Bonnie Hammer all made brief appearances onstage. What happened when they weren’t talking became almost hard to digest, as an onslaught of clips, trailers and teasers for new and returning programming blurred together by the end of the two hours. But perhaps that was the point. Content, Yaccarino insisted, is still king. And it’s not something advertisers are going to find in such abundance anywhere else.

Some of the spots played noticeably well with the crowd, led by a season-two trailer for Mr. Robot. Broadcast's relatively modest offerings were met with warm applause (comedies The Good Place and Trial & Error) and head-scratching confusion (This Is Us). And no show played as well as the talent. From Arnold Schwarzenegger (with a new Celebrity Apprentice tagline: "Let's get down to business") to a barely clothed Mariah Carey (of E!'s Mariah's World), Comcast-contracted celebrities — 150 in total — showed up in droves. Of course, late-night stars Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, bookending the event, proved most successful in winning over the crowd.

"This is the first year that all the NBCUniversal properties are in one place for upfronts," Meyers wryly observed at the tail end of the presentation. "NBC, Telemundo, NBC Sports Network, Golf Channel, MSNBC, USA, Syfy, E! Entertainment, Bravo, Oxygen, Twinkle, Esquire Network, Sprout, TV One, The Surgery Channel, Chiller, Cloo, The Weather Channel, and Universal HD ... and only two of those were made up."

So what's going to stick? Here are six things you should know from NBCUniversal's 2016 shill.

Even Jimmy Fallon Has Had His Fill of Chicago Shows
With an overwhelming number of networks to highlight in a tight two-hour presentation, Fallon kicked off the week's greatest endurance challenge with what proved to be a rare moment of levity. Channeling Lin Manuel Miranda, in full Hamilton garb, the Tonight Show host started rapping from the Radio City Music Hall aisle, making his way to the stage — he briefly tripped, though it's unclear if that was an accident or a moment of self-deprecation — to rip into his network. "We're not rebooting Heroes or renewing The Slap," he said, before cracking wise on inflated ad rates, a week of lying networks and his own network's obsession with Dick Wolf. (The screen lit up with nearly a dozen fake Chicago shows, including Chicago Fro-Yo and Chicago Garbage.) "At least we're the network that fired Donald Trump," he concluded to cheers before the GOP presidential candidate appeared on the screen, mouth flapping.

NBC is Happy to Crow About News Again
If memory serves, there was barely a mention of NBC’s news division last year as the Brian Williams saga was top of mind for, well, everyone in the Radio City Music Hall audience. This year? NBCU CEO Steve Burke used the platform to tout NBC News as “No. 1 in the mornings, No. 1 in the evenings and No. 1 on the weekends,” an achievement for which he credited new boss Andy Lack. Also plugged during Burke’s 10 minutes or so before Madison Avenue: the “graceful” late-night transition from Jay Leno to Jimmy “King of Late Night” Fallon, which Burke personally oversaw; the strength of NBC’s primetime standing (lest anyone had forgotten, he was on hand to remind you that the network was perennially in last place when Comcast bought the company five years earlier); and a series of acquisitions that are “paying off.”

Ratings Are Great ... Not That They Need Them
Yaccarino has been among the most vocal critics of Nielsen, which is still working to improve its capabilities to measure the myriad ways consumers are now accessing content. She used her time onstage to extol the networks’ proprietary measurement tools and warn assembled media buyers that TV is still the only place with scalable premium content. "I don’t run a measurement company and I don’t run a research company,” said Yaccarino. “But I’m happy to do their jobs for them because we cannot wait any longer.” (Later in the program, Elizabeth Hurley — via a Big Short-style video — explained NBCU’s new targeting tools NBCx and NBC+ with an extended fly-fishing metaphor.) And naturally, Yaccarino also had some TV-centric stats at her fingertips: Audiences spend seven times as many hours watching TV as they do on Facebook and 15 times more hours watching television than they do watching YouTube. Eat your hearts out, Silicon Valley guys.

Pay No Attention to the Executive Behind the Curtain
Greenblatt got all of 26 seconds — okay, maybe a few more -— to come out and plug his network’s accomplishments. He used much of his (lack of) time to tout NBC’s ongoing commitment to live TV, with new Voice coaches Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys on hand to make sure the audience was still awake. Cyrus garnered the bigger laughs, commanding the auditorium with quips about her unpredictably and the bold call to allow her to go live. Sadly, Parton wasn’t available for another talk-of-the-town musical number with Greenblatt; instead, the country music icon and NBC ratings driver introduced her “favorite piano player” via a prerecorded voiceover. (It’s worth noting NBCU cable chair Hammer was relegated to just a minute or two on stage as well.)

With the Olympics and the NFL, NBC Has the Live Edge
Burke had kicked off the morning by boldly proclaiming that NBC’s 17 nights' worth of primetime coverage of the Rio Olympics will more than triple the nightly ratings of ABC, CBS and Fox combined. And what’s more, the company has already sold more than $1 billion in ads for the Games, which begin Aug. 5. For just that reason, the Olympics — NBC sealed a pre-emptive $7.6 billion deal for in 2014, giving them rights to the Games through 2032 — got the biggest production number at the presentation, complete with drummers and Brazilian Samba dancers. Burke also touted the addition of five Thursday Night Football games to the net’s primetime schedule, joining the Sunday Night Football juggernaut, which has been the top-rated program on TV for five consecutive seasons. Absent was NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus, though he did headline an awkward video during which he made cupcakes with Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, presumably to demonstrate NBC Sports reach on digital platforms. The skit earned the playful derision of Meyers, who in his closing monologue quipped: "Did we order that cupcake show with Mark Lazarus and Larry Fitzgerald to series? Because I don’t know if we’re going to get 22 episodes out of that!” He added to big laughs: “What is the opposite of chemistry?”

Seth Meyers Set a High Bar for Jimmy Kimmel
Speaking of Meyers, beginning and ending the presentation with NBC’s two late-night stars easily proved the company’s shrewdest move. Both were able to showcase what they do best, with Fallon the crowd-pleasing performer and Meyers the snarky palate cleanser. Giving ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel a run for his money, the latter took the stage an hour and 45 minutes into the “super-sized” showcase, having fun with the networks' upgrade from the Javitz Center: “Usually people don’t rebound from the Javitz trajectory. It’s usually, Radio City, Javitz Center, Men’s Room at Penn Station … but here we are, back at Radio City for the second year in a row. I’ve always dreamed of performing on this stage. Of course, in the dream it wasn’t for upfronts. But still, so many great acts have graced this stage. Sinatra. Beyonce. Parton and Greenblatt,” he said to big laughs, adding of the weeklong dog-and-pony show: “Watching sizzle reels at the upfronts is like meeting your brother’s new girlfriend at Thanksgiving. She seems great, but you don’t want to get too attached because chances are she won’t be around next fall.”