Somewhere in the middle of the Warner Bros. Discovery upfront presentation yesterday—I think it was as I watched Jennifer Hudson awkwardly interview Lil Jon and a Property Brother—a voice materialized in my head. It was Jimmy Kimmel’s voice, actually, from his monologue during the previous day amid the Disney presentation to advertisers, which Kimmel delivered from a separate location after testing positive for Covid. “There is no good reason for you to be in that room,” Kimmel told the crowd.
No kidding. I am not a regular TV upfront attendee. This time of year, I would usually opt for the Cannes Film Festival, another absurdist media circus, albeit one with better views and bigger stars. But with the freshly-merged WBD presenting for the first time, Paramount Global doing its inaugural combined upfront, and a new advertising push from streamers like Disney+ and Netflix—two companies that, until recently, seemed to consider the $70 billion television advertising business beneath them—it seemed like a good time to check out Hollywood’s first in-person pitch to ad buyers in three years.
Never mind that Covid is surging, or that even many of the big agents and studio presidents (stalwarts of past events) decided not to attend, or that much of the fanfare and showmanship of upfronts past had disappeared, like Les Moonves and Steve McPherson, long before the pandemic. This is still a best-foot-forward situation, where the content purveyors reveal what they actually care about, and there are tells, like the fact that the Warner Bros. Discovery presentation was heavy on Discovery networks and CNN, light on HBO Max and Warner Bros. I checked out a couple presentations in person, watched a few on live stream, popped into some events, and then checked in with veterans who offered their impressions of the proceedings.
My expectations weren’t high; I know what this is and isn’t. The audience here isn’t me, or anyone who actually creates, consumes, or cares about the content. It’s a risk-averse media buyer deciding where to plunk down P&G’s Crest budget or a marketer trying to figure out whether Fox News—which, hilariously, did not mention Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham in its presentation—is “safe” enough to promote the catheters and reverse mortgages that its viewers covet. The groaner jokes, the hokey skits, the forced appearances by actual stars like Kevin Costner and Samuel L. Jackson who would clearly rather be anywhere else—fine, whatever, that’s the cost of doing business.
What surprised me, however, was how little the upfronts now have to do with the actual shows on television. That’s ostensibly what this is all about, right? The traffic jam of black town cars outside the SoHo Grand were shuttling creators and stars to kiss the rings of Disney’s Peter Rice and Dana Walden because they make the best shows the company can muster, and this is all a big celebration to juice interest in that output. But in presentation after presentation, very little footage was shown. I kept waiting for a dramatic clip, or an extended first-look at something funny. Everything was short, truncated, a product of these consolidated companies now having so much bulk to promote, and the likely reality that not much of it was worth promoting at length. The only new trailer that made any noise, and sparked any positive reaction from people (at least the ones I talked to), was Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. And the CGI there looked unfinished (or at least I hope it was unfinished). We’ve come a long way from 2009, when ABC was so confident in Modern Family that it showed the entire pilot to the assembled crowd. When you’ve got the goods, you show them. When you don’t, you talk about “being the best,” or “our unrivaled collection of assets,” and then you show football.
That sums up the state of linear TV, right? It’s sports, reality, franchise procedurals, and a dwindling number of scripted originals that exist mostly to put on the affiliated streaming service. By my count, there were only 17 new dramas and comedies picked up by the five broadcast networks this year. NBC greenlit one new drama, a Quantum Leap reboot. The nets spun it as consistency, of course, but what they really mean is they have consistently lower standards for viewership. It all felt like everyone on both sides of the business equation was going through the motions. Especially Fox, which shocked many upfront veterans by mostly pre-taping its presentation. I heard grumbling from agents and buyers who felt dumb for having attended in person. Fox Entertainment’s Charlie Collier declined to release a fall schedule—once the centerpiece of these presentations—and Fox Corp. C.E.O. Lachlan Murdoch didn’t even bother to wear dress shoes.
Instead, for Fox and the others, the whole thing felt like a company-wide branding exercise, divorced from any particular shows or even TV itself. It’s all about “the portfolio” now, or “our unified approach,” or “company-wide capabilities.” That’s not particularly new, it’s just supersized; NBCUniversal, for instance, has been delivering a cross-platform upfront presentation for years. Now it’s smarter to preach scale because, with the growth of streaming, many of these companies now actually have it, and YouTube was right down the road pitching its billions of eyeballs.
But everyone is all-in on the kitchen-sink approach, which quickly becomes about the brands and platforms, not the actual content. Team Disney was joined by Marvel’s multiplatform strategist Kevin Feige; Fox and Paramount plugged their free, ad-supported streamers, Tubi and Pluto TV, and NBCUniversal decided to showcase the latest Jurassic World movie—an odd thing to show TV ad buyers, since it is intended to lure people away from their homes and into theaters. But that was beside the point: the onslaught is now the message.
To that end, NBCUniversal C.E.O. Jeff Shell made his first upfront appearance, as did Disney’s Bob Chapek, going where Bob Iger never did once he got the top job. David Zaslav, long a fixture of Discovery’s annual presentation, made his debut atop the much larger WBD. They were fine. I’m sure the ad buyers felt slightly more important because the bosses showed up. Zaslav, in particular, was effective, albeit a bit stiff, from my vantage point, and he made his primary case with icy precision: Warner Bros. Discovery is friggin huge now. Come to think of it, that’s what they all said, in their own way, a message that probably could have been delivered in a press release or an email. It’s scale now, not content, and that shock-and-awe mantra comes from the very top.