8 Upfronts Takeaways: Streaming Crashes the Party, TMI from Lizzo, and Fox Might Want a Do-Over
Stevie Wonder opened The CW’s upfront event by imploring his New York City Center audience to sing “The CW is the way” in place of the usual “Superstitious” chorus — and that was not even the weirdest part of the 2022 upfronts. Despite the open bars that closed out each evening, we can still remember eight key points from broadcast TV’s big week. For starters, it is no longer just broadcasters — and the upfronts are no longer just TV.
Streamers Are the New Kids
As streaming shifts its focus from subscribers to advertisers, linear television can no longer claim the upfronts as their exclusive domain. On Monday, NBCUniversal touted Peacock’s ad-supported options. That afternoon, Fox gave plenty of oxygen to its FAST platform Tubi. Then it was Disney’s turn, which has an AVOD offering on Hulu as well as an upcoming cheaper Disney+ tier with commercials, along with the usual suspects of ABC, ESPN, FX, and Freeform.
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Wednesday began with the Warner Bros. Discovery’s Madison Square Garden presentation, where the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger is complete but the eventual combination of streaming services HBO Max and Discovery+ is not. (Both services have advertising tiers but made no update on their progress toward unification.) MSG gave way to Carnegie Hall, where Paramount sold us on Paramount+ and Pluto TV as well as CBS and the former Viacom cable channels.
Further evidence that a view is a view: YouTube’s Brandcast event moved from the NewFronts to the upfronts. Again: YouTube, at the upfronts. Point made.
Here Come the Movies
The upfronts are no longer about just television series, either. Thanks to streaming, you can now advertise ahead of — and in some weird cases, in — movies.
NBCUniversal, home to Peacock and Universal Pictures, probably dedicated the most time of anyone this week on movies. Disney also acknowledged the new reality, although the company was not ready to share details (price point, launch date) of its plan for an ad-supported version of Disney+. It also pushed the straight-to-streaming “Hocus Pocus 2” pretty hard, which leads us to believe there will be an AVOD Disney+ tier by its September 30 release date. Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler, and Kathy Najimy, will have a month of runway for their brooms leading up to Halloween.
Trophies were the 2022 upfronts’ hottest accessory. The great, shiny reminder to advertisers about the power of sports to disproportionately attract live viewers was represented at Fox’s party by everything from the WWE Universal Championship belt (“Fox has ‘SmackDown’ weekly on Fridays!”) to Major League Baseball’s Commissioner Trophy (“Fox has the World Series each fall!”). At Disney, opposite iconic superhero costumes, podiums carried pretty much everything you’ve seen hoisted by champions on ESPN. (“Live sports and the Manning brothers!”)
This reporter was not too ethical to take a photo with the NFL’s Lombardi Trophy — usually given to the winner of the Super Bowl, though in this case handed via white gloves to any fool with an invite to the Disney upfront and a negative rapid Covid test. Hold my beer, Tom Brady. (Actually, I handed it to a friend.)
Cool setup, Disney, but the lighting could use an upgrade.So could my wrinkle-free shirts.
Netflix: The Punchline
Ads may be coming to Netflix, but they ain’t here yet. As such, the suddenly embattled streaming king was not a part of this year’s upfronts. It likely will be next spring. In the meantime, Netflix was part of the festivities as a punchline. Jimmy Kimmel probably put it best: “Every year I say ‘Fuck Netflix,’ and this year it came true.”
He also had this one while Zooming in to the Disney upfront: ”Now [Netflix is] coming for our money, our ad money, which is technically your money, but you know what I mean. It sucks, although I have to admit after those smug bastards choked the life out of us for years, it feels really good to see them stoop to selling advertising. I’m gonna call you scumbags, take you for drinks, kiss your ass. Oh, everybody loves ‘Bridgerton’ right? How much you think they’ll love it when its interrupted by a Nurtec commercial every four minutes, you zillion-dollar dicks.”
Diversity Isn’t Lip Service, It’s a Business Plan
Commitment to diverse programming was front-and-center at the 2022 upfronts. Right, we know, again — only this time it felt more genuine because… it’s a smart financial strategy. That’s not exactly the stuff of Peabody Awards, but combining the all-but-unlimited space for streaming content with the maturation of targeted measurement means it’s never been a better time for advertisers to zoom in on a specific demographic — especially one that’s underserved. New audiences can mean new advertisers and that’s about as close to a win-win-win as the media industry gets. We’d say all money is the color green, but no one carries cash these days.
Disney ad sales boss Rita Ferro closed her sales pitch by challenging media buyers to invest $300 million in multi-cultural and inclusion efforts, triple that of the previous year. The studio’s presentation also included “Scandal” alum Kerry Washington to represent the company’s Onyx Collective, a curation of “premium, culturally specific storytelling by the most sought-after artists of color.” The next day, Paramount dedicated a segment of its upfront to BET leader Scott Mills and his Content for Change initiative that seeks to “counteract racism, bias, stereotypes, and hate with insights-informed content and amplify stories of underrepresented audiences.”
News programming may have been the real star of the 2022 upfronts. With Lachlan Murdoch looking on, Fox touted the viewership supremacy of Fox News. At Warner Bros. Discovery, new CNN chief Chris Licht made his first public appearance since taking over the brand. Jeff Zucker’s successor, handpicked by head honcho David Zaslav, laid out his plan to return CNN to glory, including revamping the morning show and ramping up documentary production.
Last, but definitely not least in this trend, was Paramount, which used “60 Minutes” as the theme for its entire upfront event. U.S. ad sales chief Jo Ann Ross promised they’d keep the event to 60 minutes in length (they did not), and had the famous ticking stopwatch check in at regular intervals. The popular newsmagazine show’s anchors navigated us through the Carnegie Hall event, which was presented as an episode of the deep-dive Sunday show — journalistic integrity be damned.
At moments, the approach was clearly tongue in cheek. Other times it felt like a transparent attempt to make us subconsciously associate the trustworthiness of “60 Minutes” with Paramount’s EyeQ sales product. If you have those voices under contract, might as well use them to hawk “Bob Hearts Abishola,” we suppose.
Best Spin Goes to Fox
Like other upfronts this week, Fox offered a streaming option for remote viewing — but it did not tell anyone that the Skylight on Vessey event presentation was prerecorded. The space (pictured above) was cool and the screens were impressive (it’s the same venue used for the immersive Van Gogh exhibit), it was pretty rough to sit through the 68-minute commercial for commercials.
Fox flacks explained the decision like so: It’s a different year and Fox is a different company, so let’s try something different! Sure. Privately, they acknowledged concern about rising Covid levels. If a key participant, like CEO Charlie Collie, tested positive, it would be a mad scramble to get an understudy up to speed.
The next day at Disney, Kimmel spoke for all of us:”How about those fuckers at Fox yesterday? After two years of telling everyone COVID is a hoax, they trick you into taking an Uber to watch a tape. Can they do that? And more importantly, why didn’t we do that? There’s no good reason for you to be in that room, but there you are.”
Words You Never Expected From Disney
Comedians make the upfronts tolerable. Kimmel at Disney and Seth Meyers at NBCUniversal were, as usual, the stars of the week — though James Corden had a strong showing in what will be his final Paramount (fka ViacomCBS ffka CBS) upfront as host of the “The Late Late Show.”
While those guys — especially Kimmel — didn’t keep things PG, Amy Schumer took it roughly 30 steps further. Schumer, who stars on Hulu’s “Life & Beth” as well as the second season of “Only Murders in the Building,” joined Kris Jenner and Khloe Kardashian on stage at Disney’s Basketball City event. In character as Kamy Schumer, the comic paid tribute to the Kardashians matriarch: “Coming out of your pussy was honestly the biggest honor of my life,” she said to Jenner.
And then there was Lizzo. At the Warner Bros. Discovery event to plug her upcoming doc, the musician told media buyers that she “put blood, sweat, tears, and pussy juice into this documentary.” She then elaborated on the last one. Follow that, Warner Bros. Discovery streaming chief JB Perrette.
He did — and even repeated the words “pussy juice” back.
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