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What a difference a year (and a global pandemic) makes.
For the Big Four broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — May’s annual upfront presentations used to mean a focus on the fall schedule and unspooling of new trailers as network execs trotted out star after star, with the hopes of delivering the next long-running drama or comedy hit that would impress Madison Avenue ad buyers.
Now, those days are seemingly behind them.
As the TV industry continues to inch closer to a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, Disney, NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS and even the “nimble” Fox have shifted the focus of their upfront presentations to reach a point where some didn’t even bother to unveil fall schedules or trailers for new programming as the shift to streaming and a unified portfolio takes hold. (It’s also worth noting that the buzziest trailer to come out of the upfront presentations was for a streaming special for a show that ended 17 years ago .)
Below are the four biggest takeaways from Disney, NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS and Fox.
It’s about the portfolio.
NBCUniversal opened up the week with a presentation that was split into sections that put scripted, unscripted and sports in the spotlight, rather than its various networks. After a year in which the conglomerate restructured its executive ranks to form a content group in which Frances Berwick and Susan Rovner oversee a sprawling portfolio featuring streamer Peacock, NBC and six cable networks, the broadcast network’s schedule wasn’t even featured during the company’s presentation. ViacomCBS also stressed the power of its breadth of its portfolio and what it dubbed its “beautiful ecosystem” of “premium content.” With the pretaped virtual event hosted by Survivor’s Jeff Probst in a gag that took up nearly half the presentation, CBS’ schedule was almost an afterthought as network president Kelly Kahl — now the longest-tenured exec at the Big 4 — was nowhere to be found. Also nowhere to be found? Trailers for CBS’ new programming. How’s that for change.
Brands matter at Disney.
With a (glitchy) two-hour press call and another two-hour virtual presentation (that was also glitchy), Disney reinforced its belief that brands matter. The Mouse House trotted out execs from ESPN, FX, Hulu/ABC and Freeform, among others, as the company touted its flexibility. (Though we still don’t totally get why shows like Love, Victor and Mysterious Benedict Society don’t make sense on Disney and Hulu, respectively.) Disney also made its diversity and inclusion efforts a top priority, as Freeform’s Tara Duncan touted the company’s newly launched Onyx Collective and segments with Taika Waititi (who pushed FX’s Reservation Dogs) and Grown-ish favorite Yara Shahidi. And while individual brands all had their time in the sun during the lengthy presentation, ABC’s fall schedule took a backseat and was left out in the cold.
Free also matters.
Fox’s Charlie Collier peddled both the independent and “nimble” broadcast network and its AVOD streaming platform Tubi during his time center stage, offering an alternative to ad buyers who were struggling with what he called “Max+ syndrome.” That Tubi was such an integral part of Fox’s presentation further illustrates how much the television industry has changed over the past year. (Not to be outdone, WarnerMedia also used its upfront presentation this week to officially unveil a June launch and pricing for its ad-supported version of HBO Max.)
Remember when we thought Greg Berlanti programming six of The CW’s 12 hours of scripted originals was a big deal at the start of the 2020-21 season? Well, Dick Wolf just one-upped TV’s most prolific producer. The procedural king now controls three nights of primetime across two networks as CBS has three hours of FBI shows on Tuesdays, NBC has its trifecta Chicago franchise on Wednesdays and Law & Order: For the Defense joining SVU and sophomore Organized Crime on Thursdays. Fox is using its 911 franchise to launch new show The Big Leap before reuniting Lone Star with its flagship show in the latter half of the 2021-22 season.
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