Inside NBCU's Upfront: Stars, Streamer Confidence and 'SNL' on a Monday

Kenan Thompson is the only version of Steve Harvey you'll be seeing on NBCU any time soon.
Virginia Sherwood/NBCUniversal

The ad-buying community was ushered into upfront week Monday morning with a mix of rain and an annual promise of scale.

The pitch came from NBCUniversal, which began its not-quite-two-hour upfront presentation with a focus on the reach that the portfolio offers from longtime sales chief Linda Yaccarino. But after heavy messaging about NBCU’s powerful “content, data and distribution” — among the stats: last year alone, the company invested $24 billion to produce and acquire content — the cast of Saturday Night Live was trotted out to remind those gathered at Radio City that NBCU is in the entertainment business.

In an upfront-themed installment of Family Feud, NBC News, featuring Morning Joe hosts Joe and Mika and Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, was pitted against NBC Entertainment, led by Sterling K. Brown, Jennifer Lopez and Mr. Robot star Rami Malek, all played by SNL talent. Chris Redd scored the most laughs as This Is Us Emmy winner Brown, who instilled his answers with over-the-top earnestness and heavy emotion; though Pete Davidson as a “creepy,” affect-free Malek and Kate McKinnon, as an overtly sexual Brzezinski, were a close second — at least in the nosebleeds.

Whoever wrote the bit was also eager for Kenan Thompson, playing Steve Harvey as he has so many times before, to mock the comedian's persona non grata status at NBC. (His NBCU-distributed talk show was officially canceled last week, days before the broadcast net announced a new version of Little Big Shots would see Melissa McCarthy grabbing his hosting gig.)

"It turns out I've got a medical condition that prevents me from saying no," said Thompson, as Harvey. "I've got to wrap this up because I've got an Uber pool in 20 minutes."

The remainder of the presentation featured a mix of talent, including real-life Malek, now an Oscar winner, and forthcoming USA star Rosario Dawson (Briarpatch) along with Jimmy Fallon, a smattering of Kardashians, Olympians and Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and, of course, Seth Meyers. Here are the highlights.

A New Sales Pitch
Yaccarino extended a pre-taped Orwellian opener, a spoof of Apple's famous 1984 Super Bowl ad, describing the dystopian effects of “rapid globalization, technological innovation, industrial revolution and an all-out assault on trust." The latter also served a warning for brands who stray into the digital jungle where ads could pop next to objectionable content. To no one in the theater’s surprise, NBC’s upcoming free, ad-supported, direct-to-consumer platform featured prominently in the breezy scene-setter. “While other companies are pushing advertisers out, we’re bringing you in with a slate of new originals and gigantic library of old favorites,” she said, adding: “The shows that people love the most and stream the most are coming home. Free, not a penny more for over 80 million households. Premium content the way people want it, and scale the way brands need it.”

Brian Williams' Redemption
With the 2020 presidential election on the horizon — and NBC News and MSNBC kicking off the Democratic debate season in June — the network trotted out news stars across its portfolio, including Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, MSNBC lynchpin Rachel Maddow and Telemundo’s Jose Diaz Balart. Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie drove home the point by reminding media buyers that NBC’s news assets offer one-stop shopping. “No news organization has more resources under one roof,” she said. And apparently the redemption of Brian Williams is complete, or nearing completion. Williams, one-time face of NBC News who was sent to MSNBC, where he hosts the 11 p.m. hour, got to join his colleagues onstage. “Wow, Brian Williams, they brought him out,” whispered one suit in the audience.

Remember the Olympics, Please!
No programming event garnered more attention than the Olympics, with media buyers treated to a lengthy NBC Sports interlude kicked off by Mike Tirico, NBC’s primetime Olympic host, and capped by a live orchestral rendition of the network’s Olympics theme. Tiricio reminded buyers of the unprecedented live viewing opportunity — “7,000 hours, over 17 days, reaching 205 million people” — that awaits with the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. (Brace for a much bigger Olympics spiel next May.) And one day after Mother’s Day, the network recruited 13 female Olympians, including Lindsey Vonn, Allyson Felix and Kerri Strug, who took the stage to the only standing ovation of the presentation. Driving the female empowerment vibe home, Vonn reminded the Radio City audience that over the past 15 years, U.S. women have won half of all Olympic medals.

Setting the Bar for Star Wattage
Mixed in among a series of trailers and sales pitches, was an impressive array of stars, from the cast of This Is Us to all four coaches on The Voice — who closed out the show with a medley of songs. The morning’s standouts, however, were Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, whose arrival alone prompted whoops from those in the Radio City audience. The duo garnered particularly big laughs for an exchange about how, as Poehler put it, “the colorful, feathery peacock arms” of NBC had long ago welcomed the ladies in, allowing them to reemerge into swans on the network’s air. “And like swans,” Fey cracked, “we’re mean as hell and we won’t stop pooping … out great stuff for NBC.” Other highlights included The Good Place star Ted Danson, who introduced himself as “legendary actor Ted Danson,” joking that the moniker was a perk of being 71. By 75, he joked that he’d be bumped up to “iconic” and then “a national treasure” at 80. Finally, late-night host Seth Meyers returned to roast his network for his fourth consecutive year. Following quips about the network’s hit rate (“Seth Meyers at the upfronts is one of the longest-running shows on NBC”) and its still-unnamed over-the-top service, he made his biggest splash with a dig at Today, joking that Kathie Lee Gifford recently became the “first person to leave the Today Show willingly.” He added that the morning show’s mantra should be: “Security will show you out.”

Oh, Yeah, the Trailers ...
New content seemed to take more of a backseat than recent years, though there were plugs for new dramas Council of Dads, Bluff City Law and Lincoln and comedies Perfect Harmony, Indebted and Sunnyside all drew decent reactions. It was USA dramas Briarpatch and Resident Alien, however, that seemed to grab the most attention from the crowd. Then again, those were the two that played first.

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