Hillary Atkin

Redefining Premium Content and Re-Examining the Reboot: A Look Back at the Network Upfronts, Part 2

May 22, 2019

The dust is still settling from last week’s upfronts in New York, even as nearly all of the top network executive chairs were rearranged due to consolidation or misconduct.

There was much discussion about the promise of data-driven accountability in a “premium content” environment, a term that now seems to be defined as anything other than digital user-generated content.

Last year the big trend was reboots. But no one wants to revisit the cringe-worthy implosion of “Roseanne,” a show that was the toast of 2018’s upfronts. And although it was intended to be a closed-end series, the revamp of “Murphy Brown” likely would have seen more airtime had the ratings been higher.

Not to say reboots are entirely dead — but this year a new trend emerged. Shows built around immigrants and mixed-race families, meaning more actors of color in leading roles and presumably even more inclusion in below-the-line positions.

And there are cops, cops and even more law enforcement officers, many of them female — including characters played by Allison Tolman and Edie Falco.

Sports — from college football to the Olympics, World Series, NCAA and NFL — also played a key role in many of the presentations, but ESPN’s separate upfront was removed from the calendar and combined into Disney’s.

Here is the second 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.

Disney, Lincoln Center

Its bulked-up presence after the $71.3 billion acquisition of assets from 21st Century Fox meant that room had to be made to showcase programming from National Geographic Channel and FX, along with ABC and Freeform, from whose ranks Karey Burke emerged to become the new entertainment president at the Alphabet Net. She took the reins from Channing Dungey, who recently decamped for Netflix.

As Jimmy Kimmel joked in his now-legendary series of upfront monologues, “…it was a Shonda.” Kimmel killed it with his set, by far eclipsing other late-night competition that appeared during the week, pretty much all of them: Stephen Colbert, James Corden, Seth Meyers and, well, we can’t count Jimmy Fallon as he appeared but didn’t speak. Samantha Bee was nowhere to be found.

Kudos to Kimmel for leaving almost everyone rolling in the aisles at David Geffen Hall and the overflow room, Tully Hall, which he joked that even Felicity Huffman had trouble getting her daughter into.

Speaking of the new conglomeration of networks under the Disney umbrella, the late-night host bottom-lined it this way: “This clusterfuck of networks will do anything to get your dollars,” he said.

Interspersed throughout the trailers of new programming on the various networks were examples of ad integration, with rather lengthy clips from company executives extolling the partnerships. One of the most successful seemed to be Mercedes’ sponsorship of Kimmel’s late night concert series, which has gone on for three years now. I noticed that one of the other promo reels from a beer company used clips from a show that went off the air nearly five years ago.

But back to the shows, and what looks eminently watchable. On ABC, comedies “Mixed-ish,” a spinoff of “black-ish” which follows Rainbow Johnson’s experiences growing up in a mixed-race family in the 1980s and another multicultural family sitcom titled “United We Fall.”

“Untitled Cobie Smulders Project” features the actress as a private investigator in a new drama based on the Stumptown graphic novel series.

Next season will be the last for the beloved comedy series “Modern Family,” which premiered in 2009 and is certain to get a “Big Bang” style sendoff.

On FX, CEO John Landgraf highlighted the new edition of “Fargo” with Chris Rock and another high-profile limited series almost guaranteed to get awards recognition, “Mrs. America,” starring Cate Blanchett as conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly.

Other coming attractions featured Alex Garland’s “Devs” and a show a little outside FX’s normal wheelhouse, the half-hour comedy series “Lil Dicky.”

Big news from National Geographic Channel. Instead of the previously announced “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley, the late, great Aretha Franklin will be the next subject of “Genius,” after two previous seasons of the series that explored the lives of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso– and netted the network a number of awards for its efforts.

Not to be outdone by other networks bringing out top-name performers, the presentation closed with a performance by John Mayer.

WarnerMedia, Theater at Madison Square Garden

With AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner’s networks and an executive shuffle at the top, Bob Greenblatt coming in and expanded roles for Jeff Zucker and Kevin Reilly, things were a bit different Wednesday morning at what was previously known as the Turner upfront.

For starters, there was no off the cuff bantering amongst mainstays Anderson Cooper and Conan O’Brien, often with an assist from Shaquille O’Neal.

Perhaps that contributed to the usual running time of two hours being cut to barely an hour and 15 minutes.

CEO John Stankey opened the upfront by promising that there would be advertising in the second phase of the as yet unnamed WarnerMedia streaming service.

Reilly, who will be in charge of it, it didn’t get into details about its programming strategy but did a bit of trash-talking about other streamers’ binge-and-burn mentality, saying WM’s would be an antidote to that.

Predictably, O’Brien had some fun with the whole thing, starting with its lack of a name. His choices, “HBO Plus, WarnerMedia Now and my personal favorite, Stankeyvision.” And the late-night host couldn’t resist taking a dig at his new corporate parent. “Because this is AT&T, after the show there will be a terrible reception,” he joked. “And because it’s AT&T, the afterparty only has two bars!”

It was clear during the presentation that the corporate parent intends to blur the lines amongst TNT, TBS and TruTV. Reilly said each will be stronger if they are less bound to a singular brand or genre as they have been in the past, with TNT focusing on drama and TBS on comedy.

One example is action series “Snowpiercer,” premiering on TBS for its second season. Still, TBS features a heavy dose of comedy with “Conan,” “The Last O.G.” and “Full Frontal.”

And “Full Frontal” correspondent Amy Hoggart will lead a new TBS show combining scripted and unscripted segments, while retaining her role on Samantha Bee’s late-night program.

Another season of acclaimed drama “The Alienist ” is headed to TNT next year and the network also continues to feature dramas including “Claws” and “Animal Kingdom.” There’s also a big reality add to the lineup, the new series “Shaq Life.” Swish!

CBS, Carnegie Hall

The most-watched network in America for 11 years didn’t skip a beat from its similarly triumphant spirit of years past, when ringmaster Leslie Moonves ran the show.

Yet the Eye is in new territory with acting CEO Joe Ianniello taking over corporate control– at least through the end of this year – and the recently-promoted David Nevins playing a big role in picking pilots while still keeping the network’s focus on procedurals.

There was a lot of comic relief that helped allay the memories of the turmoil surrounding Moonves’ departure under a cloud of multiple sexual misconduct allegations.

Stephen Colbert made a brief appearance before racing back to host pop sensations BTS on his show that night. “I have one hour to learn Korean,” he said. “That brings in the 18-year-olds, and the 49-year-olds who are desperate for something to talk about with their 18-year-olds” he noted, reminding advertisers that “The Late Show” is number one in the 18-49 demographic.

James Corden also had the Carnegie crowd laughing with his mini-set, poking fun at his own network, starting with “Blue Bloods” getting a tenth season. “I’ve never watched it, you’ve never watched it. Apparently, someone somewhere is watching it,” he said.

He also deprecated himself while promoting his upcoming gig as host of the Tony Awards, or as he said CBS calls them, ”NCIS Broadway.” “The Tonys are just like the Oscars with none of the controversy and a fifth of the audience… If you love award shows but hate ratings, The Tonys is the show for you,” Corden promised.

And you may have heard that one of CBS biggest ratings-getters is now one for the history books. Before its boffo grand finale that would occur the following night, the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” and its co-creator Chuck Lorre appeared on stage to bask in the love they’d brought for 12 seasons.

Lorre is also behind a promising new addition to the CBS primetime schedule with “Bob Hearts Abishola.” It’s about a sock salesman from Detroit who falls for his cardiac nurse, an immigrant from Nigeria, as he recovers from a heart attack.

Another new sitcom we are awaiting is “The Unicorn,” starring Walton Goggins– in an abrupt turn from previous villainous and over-the-top characters he’s played in films including “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained” and edgy cable series like “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy.” The actor plays a widower who is suddenly “all that” when it comes to being an object of desire of the women in his social circle.

You loved Edie Falco in “Nurse Jackie” and “The Sopranos.” (And maybe even in “The Menendez Murders.”) Now you can see her in “Tommy,” in which she plays a tough yet rather reluctant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, the first woman to hold that position. The title comes from her name, Abigail “Tommy” Thomas.

Patricia Heaton fronts another female-led new show, “Carol’s Second Act,” as a person who seeks the career of her dreams, as a doctor, at the ripe young age of 50.

Another CBS talent got a warm welcome as she makes history as only the third-ever female solo anchor of a weekday network news broadcast. Norah O’Donnell leaves the morning show to sit in the chair once occupied by the legendary Walter Cronkite. The broadcast will move to Washington D.C. (where O’Donnell also lives with her family) to be closer to all the action surrounding the 2020 presidential election. For the record, the other two solo woman broadcast news anchors were Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer. The other women you may remember were technically co-anchors.

CW, New York City Center

A surprise performance by the Jonas Brothers, including their number-one hit “Sucker,” opened the CW’s presentation, the last upfront of the week, with a much-needed jolt of energy to close things out.

In a tight 45 minutes, network president Mark Pedowitz showcased the CW’s lineup for the 2019-2020 fall season, which includes 12 hours of original programming each week– and the pickup of its entire slate– which will include an abbreviated final season of “Arrow.”

His big shiny new toy is “Batwoman,” starring Ruby Rose as Gotham’s new caped crusader, on Sunday nights, followed by, naturally, “Supergirl.”

The new “Nancy Drew,” based on the popular young adult book series of the 1960s, stars Kennedy McMann as a brilliant teenage detective who somehow becomes a suspect in a murder mystery.

For midseason, “Katy Keene” is a “Riverdale” spinoff featuring four Archie Comics characters in their 20s as they chase their dreams in New York City.

Pedowitz highlighted the success of “Riverdale” and joked that the drama was the inspiration for the name of the new British royal baby, Archie. “We think we know where Harry and Meghan really got their baby’s name,” he said.

“Supernatural” is ending after 15 seasons, and its stars Jared Padelecki and Jensen Ackles thanked advertisers for supporting them during the entire run.

Fifteen years is a seeming eternity in TV time, and the actors asked the audience how many had been there for the upfront when the show was first announced. About 25% raised their hands. Tradition. Pedowitz promised to send it off in a “big, big way.”

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

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