TV Upfronts Pushed as Coronavirus Keeps Industry in Flux

Most media companies have dropped the idea of giving virtual presentations to advertisers in the usual mid-May window, though ViacomCBS is still hoping to make its date.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Kevin Reilly at the 2019 WarnerMedia upfront

In mid-March, as much of the entertainment business was closing down due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, broadcast networks announced they would forgo their traditional theater-filling upfront showcases for Madison Avenue ad buyers in favor of virtual presentations.

A month later, as the industry and the rest of the world continues to adjust to a new reality, plans for those digital presentations are still in place. As to when? That, however, is now very much up in the air.

Several TV executives told THR that amid the pandemic, plans for how and when to present to advertisers have been constantly in flux. There has been some discussion of upfronts starting in late May, with one media company taking the socially distanced stage per week. But with the country still largely at a standstill, concrete plans are difficult to make.

What's more, with production shut down across the industry and all (save for one) pilots unfinished or yet to begin production, broadcasters in some cases don't yet know what their schedules will look like a month from now, let alone in the fall.

What's clear is that the broadcast nets and their parent companies will largely not be making their presentations at their usually appointed times in mid-May. This year's presentations had been set for the week of May 11. NBCUniversal and Fox, which usually lead off the broadcast parade, are not planning to present anything that week, sources tell THR. Disney, parent company of ABC, and WarnerMedia also have pushed their presentations to a date to be determined.

ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia were the only conglomerates to actually announce dates for their virtual presentations in March, staking claim to their usual spots on May 13, the Wednesday of upfronts week. WarnerMedia has moved off that day. ViacomCBS still hopes to have some sort of scaled-down pitch to advertisers by mid-May, sources say, though a date is far from certain at this point. 

With presentations themselves postponed, negotiations between networks and ad buyers, which usually take place in the month or so after the upfronts, also will be pushed. 

The initial announcements of virtual upfronts in March, peppered with phrases like "star-studded and innovative streaming events" and "showcas[ing] our new and returning programming," in hindsight read as overly optimistic about what the state of the industry would look like in May. Production on hundreds of TV and film projects — including most pilots, which would have been publicly unveiled at the upfronts — remains stopped, and the only way an upfront could be star-studded now is via multiple video-conference windows. 

Adweek first reported the abandonment of the traditional calendar.