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Justin Timberlake’s sugary tune from the forthcoming Trolls movie, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” has only been on the radio for two weeks, but that did not stop network event planners and highlight reel editors from squeezing it into almost every presentation during the 2016 upfront week.
A relentlessly upbeat soundtrack, ever so deftly suggesting a blue-skies TV future worthy of some $9 billion in commercial commitments, it was one of several throughlines from one end of the week to the other. Despite the many differences in presentations, programming and audiences, the network’s pitches (and pop culture references) all turned out to be awfully similar.
So, as we pour out one last free drink for the annual endurance challenge and wait for that money to start rolling in, here is a look the five points the networks hammered the hardest:
1. If the mountain cannot come to Hamilton …
Locals and visitors alike gathered in New York City this week under the alluring shadow of Broadway’s Hamilton. And given the near impossibility of scoring a ticket, almost every network made an attempt to bring the Tony nominee to buyers. Jimmy Fallon kicked off NBCUniversal’s May 16 show with his own spoof, while ESPN enlisted stars Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs to write and perform an original track about the allure of live sports (Why not?). ABC flashed a mock Playbill with Quantico star Priyanka Chopra sitting in for the founding father — while CBS went whole-hog, with a clip of Lin-Manuel Miranda introducing Late Late Show host James Corden’s elaborate “We Just Want Your Hamiltons,” a number that they had spent too long planning to ditch after it became clear what a relentless Hamilton bombardment the week turned out to be. (CBS chief Leslie Moonves acknowledged the barrage, but cracked from the Carnegie Hall stage, “Come on, ours was the best?”) Fox, who had enlisted Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan to help punch up some jokes, had at one point toyed with including a Hamilton crack but ultimately left it out, thereby becoming the only Big Four network not to go there.
2. Bored by sales execs? Allow this celebrity to explain
Speaking of overplayed pop culture references, who knew so many networks would take a cue from The Big Short? The Oscar-winning feature about the financial crisis played prominently in the NBC and Fox presentations, which spoofed the film’s wonky expositional asides of celebrities talking about sub-prime mortgages. Royals star Elizabeth Hurley offered a fly-fishing metaphor for attracting consumers, while Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane tried to do Fox ad sales boss Toby Byrne’s job for him in his own address to buyers. The effectiveness is up for debate, but it was certainly memorable.
3. The future is not as digital as you’ve been told
Following the even longer newfront presentations at the top of May, and several years where the networks have tried to position a symbiosis between traditional TV and newer platforms, 2016 marked something of an about-face. Nearly ever ad sales chief tried to poke holes in the digital narrative, emphasizing that TV is the most effective way to reach consumers and get a return on investment. NBCUniversal’s Linda Yaccarino noted audiences spend seven times as many hours watching TV as they do on Facebook and 15 times more hours than they do watching YouTube, while Fox made jabs at the digital standard of three seconds counting as a view and CBS’ Moonves noted the “bloom was off the rose.” The only network to brag about digital was The CW, where its audience’s aggressive streaming appetite continues to skew young (median age 26) and compensate for its comparatively modest linear viewership.
4. We’re all No. 1
This is not exactly a breaking development, but every variety of “We’re the best” got bandied about this week. ABC is the “most co-viewed,” The CW has the “most balanced audience composition” and is the “most critically acclaimed,” Fox is the most stable. The biggest pissing match goes to CBS and NBC, the No. 1 and No. 2 nets in the key demo this season — though both happy to claim the top slot with math that works to their advantage. (The Super Bowl doesn’t count! No football counts!) It might be time to stop splitting hairs about the NFL’s contribution to ratings, since football isn’t going anywhere.
5. Jimmy Kimmel isn’t the only roast game in town
Once a tradition mostly reserved for ABC, every network is now getting in on the self-deprecation game, delivered by the funniest man, woman or cartoon character the network has to offer. NBC trotted out Seth Meyers — “So many great acts have graced this stage. Sinatra. Beyonce. Parton and Greenblatt” — and Fox screened a well-received clip from Homer Simpson. “I recorded this two months ago, so I assume you still have your jobs — congratulations,” he said, addressing chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman. “If it’s just one of you now, please know that I always thought you were the smartest and best looking and I told James and Lachlan [Murdoch] so many times.” Conan stepped up for TBS (“I could not be happier or more contractually obligated to be here”), Billy Eichner was on hand for TruTV (“Is TV dead? No. That said, it has about three years to live.”) and Kimmel continued to deliver for ABC (“Let’s call this what it is: It’s a Ted Talk where you leave dumber than when you got here.”) The only ones to leave their networks largely out of the crosshairs: Stephen Colbert (of CBS) and Samantha Bee (of TBS), both of whom opted to target Donald Trump instead.
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