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The whitest man in America, as Anthony Anderson dubbed ABC/Disney TV Group chief Ben Sherwood, kicked off his network’s upfront Tuesday with a handful of apologies.
The first, for the fact that ABC hosted the very first upfront in 1962, to which he said: “On behalf of the industry, I’d like to say we’re very sorry.” And the second: for the network’s recent ratings struggles, for which he simply said: “We have higher standards for our performance.”
What came next was a 100-minute presentation packed with big news (Katy Perry will judge American Idol! Grey’s Anatomy is getting a spinoff!) and a series of powerful moments onscreen and onstage. The festivities were considerably more focused on the network’s programming than the sports and data that dominated other nets’ presentations, and it was easily the tightest and most slick. (And keeping with the week’s extra emphasis on musical numbers, it ended with Backstreet Boys gyrating to their signature tune “Everybody.”)
The only thing missing was the week’s resident roast master Jimmy Kimmel, who had already announced he’d be sitting out this year’s upfront to be home with his wife, daughter and newborn son. A few weeks earlier, the ABC late-night host — or “America’s host,” per ABC Entertainment chief Channing Dungey — announced in an emotional monologue that his son was born with a heart disease.
Kimmel did send along a note, however, which Sherwood read to laughs in Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall. After joking that he was boycotting the event because of the “cancellation of Dr. Ken,” Kimmel suggested he was sorry that he wasn’t in attendance this year. “And if you believe that,” he added, “you’re just the kind of ad buyer we’re looking for.” The late-night host, who on Tuesday was tapped to return to the Oscar dais in 2018, did promise he’d be back to the upfront stage next year, “on the off-chance network television continues to exist.”
Here are Tuesday’s highlights:
The Return of Roseanne
“Fearless.” “Groundbreaking.” “Exactly what America was craving.” Those are just some of the terms and phrases that flashed across the screen during the clip reel for Roseanne. Earlier in the day, Dungey announced that the network would be rebooting the working-class sitcom, which ran for nine seasons on ABC. Roseanne Barr will return along with the entire cast and several of the show’s original writers and directors. Many of those actors were trotted out onstage after a lengthy sizzle reel, which successfully reminded the theater full of media buyers of the kind of subjects the show famously tackled, from a family’s money troubles to racism in America.
Data Takes a Backseat to Sizzle Reels
Ad sales president Rita Ferro — who assumed her role overseeing sales for ABC, Disney channels and Freeform, among other assets, in February — was introduced in a taped $100,000 Pyramid bit with Michael Strahan and Tom Bergeron. She kept her pitch brief. Ferro extolled the quality environment of broadcast television, a narrative hit much harder by ad chiefs at NBC and Fox one day earlier; and the power of the “Disney difference,” explaining that the company’s assets reach every member of the family. And like Sherwood, who preaches “radical candor,” she acknowledged that there is room for improvement: “We’re facing disruption head-on; we accept these challenges, and we know we can do better.”
Scandal Is Getting a Splashy Sendoff
In what proved to be a talent-heavy presentation, Kerry Washington appeared with a monologue fit for any of Shonda Rhimes‘ heroines. She spent a good five minutes onstage, the most of any other actor or actress this week. Washington talked about the show coming to the end of the road, tearing up at one point and implying that ABC will be promoting the hell out of Scandal‘s upcoming seventh and final season. “We are extraordinarily proud of what we’ve created with Scandal at ABC,” she said. “We are also engaged in one of the most creatively fulfilling experiences of our whole life.” The actress, joined by the entire Scandal cast, wrapped by reading a note from absentee Rhimes and giving an embrace to boss Dungey.
ABC emphasized the “A” in American Broadcasting Company with one early programming reel, leading into Dungey’s pitch, that saw characters from its various shows appearing in front of a venue-spanning American flag — while audio of Constance Wu’s Fresh Off the Boat character taking the Naturalization Oath played in the background. The fact that one of the Big Four took the upfront to tie an immigrant story to patriotism is not a small thing. It was perhaps the most political moment of the week thus far, especially since it came on the heels of a Black-ish scene in which Anthony Anderson and company scream in horror at a woman who admits she voted for Donald Trump.
… and Speaking of America
American Idol was not the point of emphasis nearly everyone was expecting it to be. Dungey got cheers when she confirmed news of Perry’s addition as “anchor judge,” but that was all the attention the midseason entry really received.
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