Hillary Atkin

Against a Backdrop of Impending Mergers … a Look Back at the Major Network Upfronts

May 25, 2018

The dust is still settling from last week’s series of major network presentations for the 2018 TV upfronts. Despite the uncertainty in the air about potential mergers between CBS and Viacom, AT&T and Time Warner and even Disney and Fox with a rival Comcast bid coming into play, top executives across the board espoused an attitude of optimism about the future.

Here’s a chronological snapshot of what went down during the whirlwind week of May 14 in a number of venues across New York City, along with some upcoming programs that caught our attention from the countless clips that were presented:


The Presentation: For the third year, NBCU combined its broadcast and cable properties into one mega upfront at Radio City Music Hall, opening with a taped skit featuring talent including Debra Messing and Ted Danson singing “Mamma Mia,” promoting the upcoming Universal sequel to the hit 2008 film.

“I have never been more optimistic, and we’ve had a tremendous last seven years,” said NBCU president and CEO Steve Burke, who proceeded to reel off stats about the excellent ratings for NBC, USA, CNBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. He also touted the Olympics on NBC through 2032, a cue for this year’s women’s ice hockey team to take the stage. They received a standing ovation, which ad sales head Linda Yaccarino later noted was an upfront first.

Other highlights came from Seth Meyers, who noted how the network has range with a black Jesus—referring to John Legend in “Jesus Christ Superstar”—and Megyn Kelly. “And talk about integration, how about “Suits” and the royal wedding. I wonder how much the Queen paid for that,” Meyers said.

Kelly later came out with a representation of talent from the NBC news team, led by anchor Lester Holt.

Simon Cowell gave a lengthy spiel about the success of “America’s Got Talent.”

The Programs: “Project Runway” is coming back to Bravo. A high profile new entry: the true crime anthology program “Dirty John,” based on the Los Angeles Times series and the podcast it spawned, starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana.

E! will host “The People’s Choice Awards” in November and “True Hollywood Story,” the tabloid-y biography-type program makes a comeback. “Nightflyers” and “Deadly Class” will run on Syfy.

“Will & Grace” has been renewed for two more seasons on NBC which also picked up “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” from Fox, marking a return to the peacock net for star Andy Samberg, who rose to fame on “SNL.”

Dwayne Johnson will host “Titan Games.” Other new programs include “The Enemy Within,” “Manifest,” a mystery-thriller from Robert Zemeckis and hospital drama “New Amsterdam.”


The Presentation: The network took over its usual home, the Beacon Theater, where the theme appeared to be “multiple storylines woven together to bring the audience closer.” Jamie Foxx, host of the network’s new “Beat Shazam,” took the stage with ad sales chief Joe Marchese and launched into a medley of classic hit songs including “Start Me Up,” “Play That Funky Music White Boy” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

After those pounding beats, Gary Newman and Dana Walden presenting the network’s fall and midseason slate. It seemed to be business as usual in the face of Disney’s proposed acquisition and the possibility of a Comcast bid, with scripted series and NFL football in the fall and unscripted in midseason and summer.

“This is New Fox. We’re positioning ourselves for the future to deliver more,” Walden remarked. (Foxx later challenged her to dance at next year’s upfront.) The execs touted the fact that two-thirds of the network’s freshman series survived, the best record in 20 years–and shouted out the landmark 30th season of “The Simpsons.”

Eli Manning took the stage with Michael Strahan to promote Thursday Night Football and Sean Combs and Fergie promoted the second season of “The Four.” The music competition show’s Meghan Trainor capped off the presentation with a rousing performance.

Afterwards, attendees decamped to Central Park’s Wollman Rink where the attractions included specialty cocktails, multiple food stations and a cookies and ice cream bar, photo opportunities with cast members and a spirited DJ set from Foxx and his daughter Corinne, who will spin on “Shazam.” DJ Khaled also made an appearance on stage as the crowd danced into the night in what’s known as upfront’s longest afterparty.

The Programs: Fox is reviving Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing,” the multicam family sitcom that was canceled by ABC at the end of 2016-17 and is owned by 20th TV.

You could call it a new “oldie,” “Cool Kids” starring Martin Mull and Vicki Lawrence, a comedy that centers on residents of an assisted living facility that want to live life to the fullest.

Danny Strong, an EP of “Empire,” debuts “Proven Innocent,” a drama about absolving people wrongly convicted of crimes. Ridley Scott brings “The Passage,” about scientists experimenting with a virus that could wipe out all disease, or kill the human race.

“Cosmos” is returning to Fox and National Geographic channels with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as host. And get ready for “Rent,” the classic Broadway musical, to rock your universe live on Jan. 19.


The Presentation: The Minskoff Theater is the home of one of Broadway’s biggest and longest-running hits, “The Lion King,” so it was only appropriate that a big cat in the world of sports and entertainment kicked things off. Newly minted Oscar winner Kobe Bryant was there to promote “Detail,” an in-depth basketball game analysis show.

Similarly, baseball great Alex Rodriguez promoted “Pivot,” a four-part series he is executive-producing featuring personal stories of current and former athletes. Rodriguez, whose 22-year MLB career was marred with a number of controversies and a challenging relationship with the media, has re-invented himself as an analyst for both Fox and now ESPN since leaving baseball two years ago.

Content EVP Connor Schell reminded everyone in the room that sports is the best unscripted program and that it provides deep experiences that create an emotional connection between fans and brands, the perfect equation for advertisers.

The Programs: Very exciting news regarding the next major-league installment in the Emmy Award-winning “30 for 30” series, “The Last Dance,” a ten-hour documentary focusing on basketball legend Michael Jordan and his championship team,  the 1990s Chicago Bulls. It’s directed by Jason Hehir, who helmed the recent multi-part sports doc “Andre the Giant” for HBO.

Also ahead, “Basketball: a Love Story,” 63 short stories encompassing 170 legendary players that will be accessible across all platforms beginning in in October.

ABC & Freeform

The Presentation:  No big surprise, but it was all about Roseanne, the woman and her rebooted show that has been a massive success for the network. In a taped piece, Ms. Barr sang Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and then came out on stage at David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center to say she was thrilled to again share her vocal talents. (As if anyone could ever forget her version of the national anthem.)

But it was Disney/ABC television group president Ben Sherwood who suggested a drinking game about how many times Roseanne’s name was mentioned. He then ballyhooed that it was the number one primetime show–and the last time that had happened for ABC was 24 years ago.

Members of the news team including Robin Roberts, David Muir, George Stephanopoulos and Michael Strahan appeared on stage with the message that they embrace the privilege of their positions and that they set out to honor the audience. Muir invoked the memory of legendary ABC anchor Peter Jennings as an inspiration.

Jimmy Kimmel, who had to miss last year’s upfront because of his infant son’s heart condition, was back in fine form with a ten-minute stand-up routine that skewered everyone from Bob Iger to Shonda Rhimes and Bill Cosby.

Freeform was included for the first time in the ABC presentation, with president Tom Ascheim touting its hits “Siren,” “grown-ish”—whose star, Yara Shahidi also made an appearance– and “The Bold Type.”

The Programs: Entertainment president Channing Dungey presented the slate, which includes the return of the hit shows “The Good Doctor” and “Shark Tank.” There was huge, enthusiastic response to a clip of the upcoming “Dancing with the Stars Junior.” Other new programs include “The Rookie,” starring Nathan Fillion as an over-40 cop starting his career in law enforcement with the LAPD, the 1970s-set “The Kids Are Alright,” the drama “A Million Little Things” and ensemble comedy “Single Parents.”


The Presentation: He’s been a mainstay at upfronts for the past few years– since he shot to fame and won a Tony award for “Hamilton.” Daveed Diggs, star of TNT’s upcoming sci-fi series “Snowpiercer,” kicked things off for the Turner family of networks (Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, CNN, TBS, TNT, truTV and Turner Sports) with an a cappella rap at the theater at Madison Square Garden.

Talking about mainstays, Anderson Cooper and Conan O’Brien, two self-proclaimed really white guys, riffed and ragged on each other before handing things over to network president Kevin Reilly.

Reilly courted advertisers by focusing on the networks’ “omni-channel,” which he said combined events, tours and social media into programming. It’s a concept which O’Brien joked was named because Reilly got the idea when he stayed at an Omni hotel.

More chuckles came from late-night host Samantha Bee who promoted an upcoming mobile game called “This Is Not a Game, the Game” with plenty of room for corporate sponsorship.

Enter Tiffany Haddish, the comedy world’s newest “it” person, who joked about race relations and her newfound wealth and status. Haddish will host the upcoming MTV Movie and TV Awards next month, so this was a little warm-up.

The comedy kept rolling, with O’Brien noting that he’d been allowed to do stupid things since 1993.

Finally, “The Last O.G.’s” Tracy Morgan wrapped things up with a heartfelt set about his recovery from the horrifying truck accident that put him in a coma.

The Programs: Audiences who appreciated CNN’s docuseries about the 70s, 80s and 90s are bound to go for a similar concept that focuses in on movies from those decades, from Tom Hanks’ production company. (CNN plans six new original series in 2019.) After the success of “The Alienist,” TNT expands its storytelling repertoire with the sci-fi series “Ridley Scott Presents,” a mystery series from “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins and a thriller starring Amy Brenneman called “Tell Me Your Secrets.” Conan’s late-night show will scale down to half an hour even as an expanded digital and live events partnership between Team Coco and TBS was announced. “Rick and Morty” gets a huge thumbs up from Adult Swim with an order for 70 more episodes.


The Presentation: “So, how was your week?” Les Moonves asked rhetorically in addressing the elephant in the room at Carnegie Hall, the still-unresolved and increasingly nasty merger war between Viacom’s Shari Redstone and CBS. In response, he received a standing ovation.

“The record shows we love winning, now and in the future,” he said.

Moonves’ lighter side was showcased in an irreverent taped piece with actor John Malkovich who was seen balking– screaming, actually – about a script given to him to recite to advertisers in the room which culminated in a rant and then a profane phone call which ended with the two men cursing each other. (In case you are wondering about the connection, Malkovich finally made his first guest-starring appearance in Showtime’s “Billions” last Sunday night– and we can’t wait to see more of him.)

CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl noted that despite the Olympics and the Super Bowl on NBC, CBS still closed the season at number one. He said The Eye had seven of the top ten comedies on the air, joking that the other three were on Fox News.

Program note: CBS will broadcast Super Bowl LIII from Atlanta on Feb. 3, 2019.

Taking a high-profile page from the 1980s reboot playbook, Candice Bergen and the original gang from “Murphy Brown” took the stage to tout the new revival. Baby Avery, who was born to single mom Murphy on May 18, 1992 and created a national controversy, is now an adult cast member, played by Jake McDorman.

No CBS upfront would be complete without late night stars Stephen Colbert and James Corden, who had the audience in stitches with their political and topical humor.

Afterwards, CBS gave the week’s best party by taking over three floors of the Plaza Hotel and its downstairs gourmet food court which featured everything from sushi, lobster rolls and sliders to oysters, shrimp, and macarons, cookies and chocolates. Amidst the festivities, Moonves held court and cast members of new and returning shows posed for pictures as waiters served specialty cocktails and champagne.

The Programs: Most of CBS’s top shows are returning, including “Young Sheldon,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “NCIS.” But the subtext for nearly all the new shows was inclusion, the lack of which CBS has been roundly criticized for in the recent past. Most are led by anyone but a white man.

There are Cedric the Entertainer and Tichina Arnold in “The Neighborhood,” Brandon Micheal Hall in “God Friended Me,” Kevin Hart with “TKO: Total Knockout,” an obstacle course competition series and Jay Fernandez in the reboot of “Magnum, P.I.” “FBI,” from Dick Wolf, features a diverse cast led by Zeeko Zaki (and Jeremy Sisto).


The Presentation: Despite its default position of the last official event of upfront week, the CW kept things tight during its presentation at New York City Center, a theater on 55th Street.

After two opening numbers by Jared Leto’s band Thirty Seconds to Mars, including their hit “Walk on Water,” network president Mark Pedowitz announced that programming was expanding to a sixth night on Sundays and presented the slate. It will include five new series, three in the fall and two in mid-season. That makes 12 hours of primetime original scripted series Sunday-Friday nights.

Taye Diggs, starring in Greg Berlanti’s new drama “All American,” spoke about how proud and excited he is to be part of the new show, about a football player from a lower-income area transferring to a new school modeled on Beverly Hills High.

Cast members from returning shows including “Riverdale” and “Supernatural” made appearances.

The Programs: In addition to “All American,” based on the life of NFL star Spencer Paysinger, other new CW programs include a reboot of “Charmed,” two decades after the first incarnation about three sisters who discover they are witches debuted. Another reboot is “Roswell,” which emphasizes the romantic elements of the sci-fi story of a small town with aliens.

“Supergirl” is moving to Sunday nights. “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” both of which have been critically acclaimed, will conclude their runs in the 2018-19 season.

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