ABC Upfronts: Network's 'Damage Control' Includes Going Big, Jabbing Rivals and 'Dancing'
With broadcast audiences shrinking, ABC mostly avoided admitting its troubles in its upfront presentation to advertisers Tuesday. Instead it enlisted Jimmy Kimmel to skewer its rivals and focused on positives that include its news coverage and a new season that looks to have some crowd-pleasers.
NBC and Fox, also suffering in the ratings, offered more sedate upfront presentations than ABC's. The network first unveiled the the warmly received Jeff Garlin '80s comedy "The Goldbergs," and closed with the hotly anticipated drama "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," a TV offshoot of the blockbuster "The Avengers." People seemed to be having fun onstage: Rebel Wilson cursed and made an oral sex joke. Kimmel tore into CBS, Fox and NBC.
The network also delivered some news of special interest to advertisers: It announced a joint initiative with Nielsen to measure tablet and smartphone ads in its mobile apps.
The upfront opened with a skit starring Kimmel, "Scandal" star Kerry Washington and president of Disney-ABC Television Anne Sweeney. The joke was that the president – Sweeney – needed help from Washington with "damage control." But they weren't talking about ratings.
The first problem, Kimmel said, was "Dancing With the Stars" – "they're not really stars," he said. The joke was a tough one, because it came as ABC is scaling back "Dancing" -- a show past its ratings prime -- from two nights to one next fall.
For about the first hour of the 90-minute presentation, that was as close as ABC got to acknowledging its problems, which include slipping to fourth place in the key 18-49 demographic this season.
But later in the presentation Kimmel noted the shrinking audience, joking, "Every year Apple products get smaller, and no one has a problem with that."
Wilson's show is the Conan O'Brien-produced "Super Fun Night," which scored a plum timeslot after "Modern Family" for fall. It is about three young women who aspire to good times, and Wilson called it an anti-"Sex in the City."
"When these three ladies eat at night, they're not talking ahout dick," she said.
She also promised she wouldn't be "doing a Lena Dunham" by appearing nude on her show, unless it's essential -- "or if it's Wednesday."
Kimmel pushed the envelope too, telling advertisers, "It's time to stop calling this an upfront and start calling it what it is: Throwing a bunch of s--- at a wall to see what sticks. And guess what? You guys are the wall."
He was harsher on ABC's rivals, saying Fox's was lineup was good the way the Titanic was good except for the hole. He said NBC's plan to beat Univision was to "to oppose immigration reform." And he said he would stop joking about CBS's older audience when "my grandmother throws away her 'Mentalist' hemorrhoid donut."
Kimmel joked that "Univision is beating NBC" – but in fact, NBC is outrating ABC in the demo, and Univision trails both. ABC is in second-place behind CBS in total viewers. But it's a distant second.
All networks are down in the demo ratings, and all but CBS are down in total viewers. CBS is up slightly in total viewers.
Despite its mixed success this season, ABC went bigger and bolder than NBC and Fox did in their Monday upfronts.
NBC entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt said at his network's presentation that he had "no illusions" about his network's challenges, noting that it had, however, passed ABC in the key demo and was in a tight race with Fox.
Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly conceded his network hadn't had its best year.
ABC also highlighted Barbara Walters and the success of "Good Morning America."
There was a long applause break for "GMA" anchor Robin Roberts, who is battling a bone and blood disease, and a standing ovation for Walters, who announced Monday that she will retire next year.
One of Kimmel's best jokes was about her retirement.
"As you know, Barbara Walters is leaving ABC after 50 years to have a baby – my baby," he said.