Hillary Atkin

Mergers, Acquisitions, One High-Profile Fall From Grace and a New Buzzword: A Look Back at the Network Upfronts, Part 1

May 21, 2019

What a difference a year makes. Mergers, acquisitions and an ignoble fall from grace meant many of the pieces on the chessboard were rearranged during last week’s series of major network presentations for the 2019 TV upfronts, held in a variety of venues across New York City.

Last May, CBS Chairman Les Moonves appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall to huge applause as he battled a potential merger with Viacom. By the end of the year, he’d been fired for cause for alleged sexual misconduct with no severance.

It was Joe Ianniello’s show this time as commander of the CBS ship.

But no matter the new executives in charge now, including those at Fox, ABC and WarnerMedia (previously Turner) the buzzwords that appeared on just about everyone’s lips were “premium content,” a term previously relegated to describing prestige dramas on pay and basic cable — but now apparently an aspirational selling point for broadcast.

Here is the first of our two-part look at some of the highlights during the whirlwind week of May 13 as Madison Avenue headed into the $9 billion upfront after another bustling broadcast pilot season.

NBCUniversal, Radio City Music Hall

On a rainy Monday morning, NBCU entered the fray with its combined broadcast and cable properties in one upfront, beginning with a taped 5-minute skit spoofing Apple’s infamous “1984” commercial and starring Jimmy Fallon and John Cena. The ultimate point of this was unclear, yet rather amusing as Fallon proceeded to run out on stage at clip’s conclusion in ’80s-style track shorts, but no monologue.

In contrast with rather staid presentations of recent years, NBCU brought out much of the big-gun talent in its arsenal: Oscar winner Rami Malek, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ted Danson, Seth Meyers, Kate del Castillo, Mariska Hargitay and the four coaches of “The Voice,” Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine, who performed a medley of Rolling Stones tunes culminating with “Honky Tonk Woman.”

Latin music star Luis Fonsi, a coach on Telemundo’s “La Voz,” also performed his huge hit of a few years back, “Despacito.”

The laugh quotient ran high with a special “Saturday Night Live” edition of “Family Feud” hosted by Kenan Thompson and cast members playing Chuck Todd, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski —the news family—pitted against entertainment’s Jennifer Lopez, Sterling K Brown and Malek, convincingly portrayed by Pete Davidson.

And we can’t forget that uplifting moment where 10 female Olympians were brought out on stage as part of the promotion for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Non-memorably, even a couple of the Kardashians appeared.

All in all, it would amount to the most entertaining presentation of the week.

New programming that looks as promising includes Telemundo’s “No Place to Hide,” Sam Esmail’s “Briarpatch” for USA, Syfy’s “Resident Alien” and for NBC, another weepy following in the footsteps of “This Is Us” – renewed for three more seasons – called “Council of Dads.” It’s based on a best-seller about a father facing a potentially terminal illness and his support network.

Remember “L.A. Law?” Who doesn’t. Jimmy Smits returns to the legal profession in “Bluff City Law,” while Fran Drescher fronts “Indebted” and Kal Penn stars in “Sunnyside.”

Fox, Beacon Theater

The slimmed-down network — with previous assets including FX and National Geographic moving over to ABC Disney — still rose to the occasion by going back to its scrappy beginnings 30 years ago.

It was Charlie Collier’s first time in the driver’s seat at Fox after his longtime leadership at AMC and he did some tight laps to the finish line in about 90 minutes. One of his gimmicks, asking everyone to describe their shows in five words.

“I’m a cable guy, but now I feel the power of network TV,” Collier said, more than using up his word allotment but getting straight to the point. “We are the most disruptive network and we deliver immediacy and the biggest, best storefront.”

One new show certain to get a lot of buzz is the reincarnation of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” although the introduction of cast members glaringly missed the opportunity to recognize the contributions of the late Luke Perry to the seminal series, which ran on Fox from 1990-2000.

Original cast members and former teen idols Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Ian Ziering, Gabrielle Carteris, Brian Austin Green and Tori Spelling will now be grappling with life challenges inspired by what has transpired in these 19 years since high school in the six-episode “BH90210” slated for August 7. (The program went through its own off-screen drama a couple of days ago when the showrunner and two writers quit. Yes, they’ve been replaced.)

With Fox’s rich legacy in animated comedies going back to “The Simpsons,” it’s no surprise that more are headed our way, including “Bless the Harts,” “Duncanville” and “The Great North.”

Also watch for new live-action laffer “Outmatched,” toplined by Jason Biggs and Maggie Lawson.

New dramas headed this way are “Deputy,” “Filthy Rich,” “Next,” “Not Just Me” and “Prodigal Son,” with a Hannibal Lecter-esque character played by Michael Sheen whose son, a police detective, may or may not follow in his serial killer footsteps.

After heading over to Netflix in an incredibly lucrative deal, prolific producer Ryan Murphy leaves his mark on Fox with “9-1-1: Lone Star,” with Rob Lowe as a New York cop who relocates to Austin.

After the show, which culminated with a performance by Joe Namath as, wait for it, “The Masked Singer,” attendees braved continuing rainstorms in the trek to Central Park’s Wollman Rink, the traditional tented location where the attractions included specialty cocktails, multiple food stations and photo opps with cast members.

Telemundo, Hammerstein Ballroom

Across town, pouring rain outside couldn’t dampen the mood inside the venue as NBCU International Group and Telemundo Enterprises Chairman Cesar Conde welcomed the crowd and touted the importance of Telemundo’s audience.

“Hispanics are no longer just a demographic story. They are trendsetters driving social, cultural, digital and, most importantly, economic impact. Almost 60 million strong, Latinos are without question a business imperative for growth regardless of industry or category,” he said.

Telemundo’s robust lineup for 2019-2020 includes 900 hours of original programming– and a civic engagement campaign focused on the 2020 census and presidential election.

Conde introduced clips of a select few of the network’s programs, some of which had also been previewed during the NBCU upfront at Radio City, and promised new digital experiences around news, sports, entertainment and lifestyle.

It was another chance to see highlights from ratings champ “La Reina del Sur” and its star, Kate del Castillo.

But the main attraction was a private concert by Armando Christian Pérez. You know him as Pitbull. He and his troupe of dancers The Most Bad Ones performed for well more than an hour, capping off their show with his hit “Give Me Everything.”

In between songs, Pitbull, who has sold more than 65 million records, spoke of how Telemundo supported him early in his career, how grateful he is to have been born in America (in Miami to Cuban expatriate parents) and of the importance of the Latin culture and community.

“We’re not marginalized anymore. We’re mainstream,” he said, and also shouted out advertisers who have been supportive, including Kodak — even though the company went bankrupt.

Screenvision Media, Ziegfeld Ballroom

The cinema advertising company took over the Art Deco-inspired space, once a theater, for a spirited evening presentation that featured A-list actors Vince Vaughn and Hilary Swank in conversation with Screenvision Media CEO John Partilla.

The event reinforced that theatrical films continue to be a huge draw for engaged audiences — and an effective way for advertisers to reach them. Last year’s box office set a record at $11.6 billion and this year’s is already going gangbusters with the massive, record-breaking success of “Avengers: Endgame,” the first film in history to earn more than $1 billion in its debut.

Still on tap later this year are expected blockbusters including “Toy Story 4,” “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Frozen 2.”

Vaughn spoke of the profound emotional connection people have with movies and the theater-going experience and his passion for storytelling and producing content that leaves a lasting impression, particularly when it promotes equality, representation and empathy. He also talked about cinema’s ability to keep audiences captivated and free from real-world distractions, unlike television.

“As other forms of traditional media have started to fall by the wayside, the emotional draw of movies remains as strong as ever,” said Partilla as he announced plans to make the emotional aspects and engagement rating of movies more measureable and quantifiable.

Partilla also noted his company is invested in supporting the presence of women in film and has announced new initiatives to promote the inclusion and meaningful representation of women, partnering with both the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the Association of National Advertisers’ SeeHer awareness campaign.

There was no more appropriate way to close the evening then an appearance by Idina Menzel, who engaged the audience in a sing-along of “Frozen’s” “Let it Go.”

(Click here for the second part of our upfront report.)

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