TV Upfronts Wrap: 6 Big Takeaways From the Most Stable Season in Years

Analysis: A shift in the streaming narrative and blurring of brand lines are among the key narratives in the week that was.
ABC; CBS; Fox; The CW; NBC
Clockwise from top left: ABC's Karey Burke, CBS' Kelly Kahl, Fox's Charlie Collier, NBC's Paul Telegdy and George Cheeks, and The CW's Mark Pedowitz

Television's annual upfront week is in the books and, as the dust settles on the glitzy presentations, ad buyers, executives and industry insiders alike are now left to digest the narratives (and spin). For many, programming actually took a backseat to talk of scope and stability.

Here are the key takeaways from the past two weeks of renewals, cancellations, new series orders and presentations.

Stability, Stability, Stability

The number of new series orders (36) was the same as last year, when total volume hit a seven-year low. Comedies and dramas are also even year-over-year. The number of renewals ticked up — by one. But perhaps the most telling sign of the stability at the broadcast networks is that cancellations plummeted — from 40 last season to 26 this year. That's a narrative that few expected to see given the new top level executive regimes at ABC (Peter Rice, Dana Walden, Karey Burke), NBC (Paul Telegdy, George Cheeks), Fox (Charlie Collier) and CBS (David Nevins). ABC, for its part, ordered its lowest number of new series (six) since at least 2013. New ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke confessed her network simply launched too many shows last fall (seven) as the Disney-backed broadcaster narrows its focus to put marketing dollars behind fewer shows in a push to cut through. "The sheer volume of returning series has been very satisfying," Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth told THR. Adds ABC Studios topper Patrick Moran: "If we're coming out of next year with more success than failure, it'll be a strategy that pays off."  

The Streaming Narrative Shift

Remember in the past when broadcast executives would use their time before Madison Avenue ad buyers to take digs at their streaming competitors? Yeah, those days are gone. Instead, five of the six presentations featured executives touting their streaming platforms. NBC kicked off the week by touting its upcoming free, add-supported, direct-to-consumer platform. Disney opened its presentation with Kevin Mayer — who oversees its forthcoming Disney+ service — announcing that the company has acquired full control of Hulu following a complicated deal with remaining owner Comcast. That gave the media behemoth not one but two platforms, with FX fare likely to stream on Hulu rather than the family-friendly Disney+. Kevin Reilly did his best to tout marketing opportunities for WarnerMedia's upcoming streaming platform, too, which he noted will blend subscriptions (hi, HBO) and advertising. CBS offered a reel of clips from CBS All Access' impressive roster of new IP including multiple Star Trek series, The Twilight Zone, The Good Fight and its take on Stephen King's highly anticipated The Stand. The CW president Mark Pedowitz closed out upfronts by reminding ad buyers that the younger-skewing network was first out of the gate with its own ad-supported services. "Linear broadcast networks are an important platform and significant profit center but it's no longer the only game in town," said one industry insider.

The Blurring of the Brand Lines

Disney's first combined presentation (which clocked in at nearly two and a half hours) featured a mind-blowing display of brands — ESPN, newly acquired FX and National Geographic, plus Freeform and, eventually, ABC. NBC continued to feature its wide array of brands. But it was WarnerMedia's first presentation since being acquired by AT&T that offered the biggest hint at what may be to come as one mega-company after another begins to realign for the streaming era. After Reilly spent the past few years rebuilding TBS with a new slate of comedies — including critical favorites like Search Party — the comedy-focused network will lose that moniker when the long-gestating Snowpiercer adaptation moves from drama-focused TNT. The latter, meanwhile, is adding wrestling to its lineup that currently consists of a couple of remaining dramas and a couple of half-hour comedic game shows imported from … TBS. Look no further than the Friday announcement that scripted anthology Dirty John is moving from Bravo to USA Network as further indication of the programming shuffling to come as these supersized conglomerates refine their brands. (See, Viacom? You're not alone!) "This upfronts, were talking about a slate of networks instead of a slate of shows — and the brands are not feeling entirely cohesive because they're throwing a lot at you," says Sony TV's Chris Parnell.

Reach and Scope and Scale

Programming was almost such an afterthought this year that NBC's new entertainment presidents — Telegdy and Cheeks — didn't even take the stage at the NBCU upfront presentation. Instead of unspooling ratings spin strength, NBC, Disney, WarnerMedia and CBS presentations each put the spotlight on their multitude of offerings —broadcast, basic cable, streaming and everything in between. "With so many of the combined upfronts with networks between Disney and Fox, WarnerMedia, NBCU all doing combined presentations, this upfronts was all about scope and reach." 

Ownership Still Matters

After divesting its TV studio and cable networks FX and NatGeo, Collier delivered a cohesive message of what his slimmed down Fox Entertainment will comprise: sports and scripted. And speaking of scripted, the studio-free broadcast network raised eyebrows when it boarded eight of its nine new scripted originals as co-productions. It positioned the new network for the future by carving ownership on series from the likes of Greg Berlanti (who had all three of his pilots picked up to add to his TV record with 18 scripted originals), Tate Taylor and Jason Katims, among others. Co-productions also continued to be standard when it came to outside studio buys. But many executives bemoaned the new wave of haggling over digital rights as networks now want to put originals on multiple platforms. "Co-productions are always difficult and every year there are different rights to address," 20th TV's Howard Kurtzman said.   

Farewell to the Favorites

Long-running, network-defining hits got their due with a curtain call for the cast of CBS' The Big Bang Theory, which this week signed off as TV's longest-running multicamera comedy in history after a 12-season run. The CW also trotted out the stars of Supernatural, which will end in 2019-20 after 15 seasons. ABC reminded ad buyers that broadcast TV can still deliver hit shows when the cast of Modern Family returned to the stage and recalled the upfront presentation more than a decade ago during which their entire pilot wowed the room. 

See what's new, renewed and canceled at every network with THR's scorecards for ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW. For complete upfronts coverage, bookmark THR.com/upfronts.