Turner Upfront Features Digital Digs, a Sam Bee Plea and a Glimpse at the Kevin Reilly Era

Also included in the two-hour presentation were Billy Eichner quips, Conan O'Brien plans and an appeal to ad buyers to embrace shorter ad loads.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Turner
Kevin Reilly

With media buyers packed into Madison Square Garden, the Turner upfront presentation stretched to two hours Wednesday morning as the portfolio of networks peddled lower ad loads, more premium content and near wall-to-wall coverage of a presidential election that TBS late-night star Samantha Bee likened to a "peyote hallucination."

Among the parade of recognizable faces trotted onstage to showcase the company's breadth and plug new and returning projects were Bee, Charles Barkley, Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, Anthony Bourdain, Anderson Cooper, Billy Eichner and Conan O'Brien, who said to laughs: "I could not be happier or more contractually obligated to be here."

Not unlike the NBCUniversal dog-and-pony show earlier in the week, the barrage of networks and corresponding messages, clips and talent was at times dizzying. But then perhaps that's the point.

Here are the highlights:

A Few More Digital Digs

Ad sales chief Donna Speciale came out with a few clear talking points (and a whole lot of jargon) for the ad-buying community. Among them: She's pleased to see her cable competitors following her networks' lead in improving the viewing experience by cutting ad loads; and now she's hopeful that Madison Avenue will support those moves, too. Additionally, she, like several other traditional media execs who have graced stages this week, took a shot at digital. In plugging O'Brien's just-announced branded content studio, she touted the late-night star's digital reach, citing five bits that garnered more than 75 million views, and then added with a wide grin: "And in our world, a view is at least 30 seconds, not three." The digital digs continued, with Turner talent also making cracks about new media platforms from Youtube to Yik Yak. But it was Eichner who got the biggest laughs on the subject. Coming out toward the end of the presentation, he suggested that his bosses had instructed him to talk up the health of TV for the deep-pocketed media-buying audience. How he opted to do so: "Is TV dead? No," he asked and answered. "That said, it has about three years to live. Hey, that's not dead."

The Reilly Era

TNT/TBS boss Kevin Reilly returned to the Turner stage, though this year he had more to offer than "promises" and "a respectable wad of cash" that he'd been "waving around Hollywood." With a handful of series greenlighted during his year-plus tenure, he was able to talk up a "turnaround" at his two highly rated cable networks and the performance of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (up 33 percent in L7 since its premiere), Angie Tribeca (back for a second season in June) and The Detour (returning in early 2017) — just as he was able to show clips of forthcoming projects, including M. Night Shyamalan's frightening Tales From the Crypt, Michelle Dockery starrer Good Behavior, Ellen Barkin drama Animal Kingdom and the newly ordered pilot Will, about a young William Shakespeare that seems to have Reilly particularly energized. Never mentioned during the exec's time on stage: anything that came before him, including hits Rizzoli & Isles, Last Ship, Major Crimes and a cadre of other shows he didn't put on the air. The exception was Conan, though Reilly's focus there was on the host's more recent foreign excursions, which will air in primetime in 2017.

The Rise of Bee

Sure, O'Brien garnered plenty of stage time and landed a few laughs. (Among them: a joke about "Kevin Reilly Zip-lines" being one of his show's sponsors, with an image of Reilly zip-lining away from his former professional home, Fox, flashing on screen behind him.) But it was Bee who seemed to win over the ad-buying audience — as well as Eichner, who took a jab at Comedy Central for not giving Bee The Daily Show. Brought out onstage by Reilly, TBS' new late-night addition thanked her "incredibly loyal fans and also our hate-watchers" for the weekly show's early success. Launching during an election year is always advantageous, Bee noted; doing so during this election year? "It was a f—ing gift from heaven, so thank you Jesus or Satan, whoever is responsible." She then made a plea to buyers to help her become a sponsor at this summer's GOP Convention in Ohio. "For only $100K, I can become an actual sponsor," she said, noting that doing so would allow a shot of her "giant face" to loom over the convention.

Anderson for President (of CNN)

If you didn't know any better, you might have walked away from the morning presentation thinking it was Cooper — and not Jeff Zucker — who runs CNN. It was he who not only emceed the event, but also talked up the network's strategy and offerings, both in news and in unscripted, as well as the net's election coverage. "With all due respect to TNT, there's been more drama on CNN than anywhere else on TV," he said, before a CNN election season clip reel rolled. For what it's worth, he also touted corporate sibling network HLN with the kind of enthusiastic spin more befitting of a network executive. And as buzz grows about his (and certainly Kelly Ripa's) interest in adding Live With Kelly! to his plate, he proved adept at the lighter fare as well. During a lengthy opening sketch, he interrupted a conversation between O'Brien and Barkley about basketball: "I'm gay and my eyes literally glazed over," he said to big laughs.

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