Ed Martin’s Annual Upfront Week Reviews

By Upfronts/NewFronts Archives

It was an Upfront Week unlike any other in recent memory.  There was something gloomy about it all, beyond the cloudy skies and intermittent downpours that already dampened everyone’s mood.  Perhaps it was the fact that the unveiling of the networks’ programming and scheduling plans was largely dwarfed by the headline grabbing maneuvers of late involving their parent companies.  Consider: There could very likely in the season ahead be seismic changes involving NBC and its cable networks, all of the Disney and Fox networks, the Turner networks, The CW and especially CBS, which found itself at the center of a white-hot conflict with owner Viacom on the very day of its massive event.  Indeed, the most emotional moment of the entire week came not from the expected source – clips from NBC’s popular tearjerker This Is Us presented at Radio City Music Hall – but from the annual on-stage appearance of CBS President and Chief Operating Officer Leslie Moonves on the Carnegie Hall stage (pictured below).  He was greeted with thunderous applause as much of the audience rose to its feet in sheer adulation, believing (to their collective disbelief) that it may have been Moonves’ last Upfront Week appearance on behalf of the network he has been a part of for 23 years.

Through it all I couldn’t help but feel that it was hard to get too caught up in all the programming news spilling forth when there existed the very real possibility that many of the programmers presenting the shows might soon transmogrify … or go away all together.

Also contributing to the overall malaise were the routine assertions by almost every network or network group that it was No. 1 in terms of social engagement, or that certain of its shows were very highly rated over the long-term as they ran on various digital platforms in the weeks and months following their broadcast premieres. It seems to me that if anything is left sitting around long enough ever-greater numbers of people will see it, but whether they engage with it or not (or pay any attention to the sponsors who are supporting it) is another matter.

There was also much championing of the networks’ aggressive push into gender equality and expanded diversity in front of and behind the camera. That’s great news, but I couldn’t help but think that as executives noted their progress they were reminding us of how slow that progress has been in coming.

Here’s the surprising part: Despite it all, most of the networks did a terrific job with their events. Except for a prolonged segment on sports during the Fox presentation that slowed its presentation to a crawl, there wasn’t a major misfire anywhere. Quite the contrary, it felt as if everyone stepped up their game.

And so it is that we come to the annual bestowing of our coveted Jacks ratings to the five broadcast networks. Every year some of the broadcasters do a better job than others in delivering their messages and promoting their programming (and, of course, their burgeoning digital and data initiatives). But credit must be given to everyone involved in their events for putting them together. It is a Herculean amount of work, executed under great pressure and with a lot at stake, from the senior executive ranks to the publicity assistants, event planners and talent coordinators who make it all happen. There can be no denying the professionalism on display throughout all of them. (Be sure also to read our reviews of the Univision, ESPN and Turner Networks Upfront Week events.)

A quick reminder of our Jacks ratings system: 5 Jacks – Excellent, 4 Jacks – Very Good, 3 Jacks – Good, 2 Jacks – Fair, 1 Jack – Poor, 0 Jacks – Don’t go there!

CBS – 5 Jacks

As noted above, CBS had the most moving moment of the week when Leslie Moonves took to the stage amid the growing turmoil involving CBS Corp. and Viacom. CBS also had the best line of the heavily scripted week when, after the applause died down, Moonves asked the crowd, “So … how has your week been?”

It would be easy to say that for as long as CBS continues with its usual grand spectacle at Carnegie Hall and its lavish post-presentation party for all attendees that spans four floors at the Plaza Hotel it is assured of a coveted 5 Jacks rating every year. But despite those advantages the network never fails to impress, showcasing new and returning series and talent in exciting ways and its integrating personalities and performers into the presentation from beginning to end. Having Allison Janney and Anna Faris of the long-running comedy Mom herald the return of Murphy Brown to the network, for example, was a touch of genius. So was the video of a very young CBS Corp. President of Sales and Chief Advertising Revenue Officer Jo Ann Ross riding around with young Sheldon Cooper (Iain Armitage) and his sister Missy (Reagan Revord) and mother Mary (Zoe Perry) ruminating about the future. Jo Ann’s future was already coming together when Sheldon reminded her that she did very well at the school bake sale.

Also, kudos to CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl on carrying his first full Upfront presentation with such confidence it was as if he had been doing it for years. He was ably supported by Senior Executive Vice President Thom Sherman – and many CBS stars.

All that was missing was a grand musical performance/production that really rocked the house (though Jon Batiste and Stay Human of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, pictured above, provided a fine opening). But CBS more than made up for it with its annual party at the Plaza, which was filled with stars, executives (including Moonves, accompanied by wife Julie Chen), fine food and great music. The lower level featured a dance floor with a great DJ. I took my leave at about 10:30 and the room was still packed to the walls with dancing Millennials. Who says CBS is for old people?

NBC and the Networks of NBCU Cable – 4.5 Jacks

I’m not a fan of presentations that stack one network upon another, as does NBCU, giving equal weight and equal time to cheap cable reality shows and pricey broadcast programming alike. It just doesn’t mix well. But those are the times we live in, and despite the overload NBCU did everything right, opening its presentation with a surprise appearance by the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team (pictured below), pumping it up half-way through with another great stand-up turn by Seth Meyers ("NBC had a huge year thanks to the Super Bowl and the Olympics, and I realize that's a weird thing to bring up because this year we don't have either,” he quipped.  “It's like a waiter coming over to tell you which specials they're out of. 'We have a seared halibut that is to die for and, also, not available.'"), and super-charging the crowd at the end with a sexy, pulse-pounding dance number by World of Dance judges Jennifer Lopez, Ne-Yo and Derek Hough and show host Jenna Dewan that filled the aisles and the grand stage at Radio City Music Hall.  It was in every way a spectacle worthy of its setting.

Interspersed throughout were appearances by Andy Cohen, Connie Britton, Ryan Phillippe, Hoda Kotb, Lester Holt, Howie Mandel, Simon Cowell, Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Andy Samberg and, of course, the beloved cast of This Is Us. But for me, much like Moonves’ appearance during the CBS presentation, the most memorable moment came near the end (before the World of Dance extravaganza) when NBCUniversal Chairman, Advertising and Client Partnerships Linda Yaccarino took the stage (after a hilarious video spoof of the infamous Zuckerberg hearings that found her testifying before Congress about how ad sales works) and championed the power of television. “No family has ever gathered around a news feed, have they?” she asked the audience.  “Nothing pushes people though the purchase tunnel like television. We’re not in the ‘likes’ business. We’re in the results business.

“TV is your biggest investment, and it should be,” she continued, reminding the crowd that NBC delivers real customers in a responsible way in a safe environment. “Is TV a big investment?” she asked. “You bet your ass it is.”

Her words remained top of mind throughout presentations later in the week that seemed to emphasize social media activity over all else.

ABC and Freeform – 4.5 Jacks

Disney brought ABC and Freeform together for the first time in an Upfront presentation, which was certainly cost-effective but may not have served Freeform as well as its own stand-alone events have in the past. There was nothing particularly wrong with its portion of the presentation, and Freeform President Tom Ascheim did a fine job on stage at the David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. It’s just that it was abundantly clear that the audience was there to see all things ABC.

Still, it was a solid, informative and straight-forward effort all around. Before the Freeform segment began Roseanne Barr triumphantly opened the show, first in an American Idol-inspired video featuring singing auditions by much ABC talent and then on stage, where she introduced the Co-Chair, Disney Media Networks and President, Disney/ABC Television Group Ben Sherwood. After his welcoming remarks Sherwood introduced Disney-ABC Television Group Sales President Rita Ferro. She kept her remarks brief and to the point. “A year ago, I told you that we could, and would, do better,” she said in talking about the company’s success at aligning its networks’ sales efforts.

Next up were ABC News stars Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, Michael Strahan, David Muir and Amy Roback. Then came the Freeform segment, followed by ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey taking us through a fast-paced overview of the year ahead, punctuated with appearances by carefully selected stars including Freddie Highmore (The Good Doctor) and Nathan Fillion (the upcoming drama The Rookie).

It will come as no surprise that the highlight of ABC’s presentation was the return of Jimmy Kimmel (pictured above) after missing the show last year due to issues involving the health of his newborn son Billy (who is now doing great, Kimmel assured the crowd).

Among his poisonous (though hilarious) barbs:

“I’ve been a fan of Freeform since 20 minutes ago when I learned what it was.”

“CBS is bringing back Murphy Brown because it knows what Millennials want and they’ll be damned if they give it to them.”

“NBC talked about rebooting The Cosby Show.  They’re calling it The Bad Doctor.

“America will not see a fourth season of Quantico in the same way it did not see a second and third season of Quantico.”

“More people are watching this than most of our 10 o’clock shows.”

Ryan Seacrest closed the show by introducing a performance by the seven finalists who have most recently been eliminated from American Idol. Many years ago, during its heyday on Fox, this would have been one of the most exciting moments of the week.  I can only speak for myself, but even though I have watched the show off-and-on this season and attended the first live telecast in person, I couldn’t put a name to most of the singers on stage.

The CW – 4.25 Jacks

Academy Award winners were a big deal during Upfront Week. As noted above, Allison Janney (I, Tonya) heralded the return of Murphy Brown at the CBS presentation, and as you will read below, the Fox event was all about Jamie Foxx (Ray). At week’s end, Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) and his band 30 Seconds to Mars opened The CW’s show in grand style at the New York City Center.  “We’re the early morning breakfast band,” Leto winningly declared after their opening number, acknowledging how odd it was for the band to be playing their music at that hour. Their brief set was better than a jolt of caffeine, though, setting the stage for one of the most colorful and generally enjoyable presentations of the week.

The CW certainly knows how to please the younger tier of the advertising industry, which was well represented at City Center. The guys cheered and the girls screamed as certain of the network's star-crossed lovers, dashing superheroes and handsome monster-fighters appeared during the show, including cast members from Riverdale (pictured below), Arrow and Black Lightning. The walls shook when the three stars of Supernatural – Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki and Misha Collins – came out to talk about the upcoming 300th episode of their series. Heading into their show’s remarkable 14th season these guys still have it.

Similarly, the stars of each new CW series, which include remakes of Roswell and Charmed, a spin-off of The Vampire Diaries titled Legacies and new sports-and-inclusion themed drama All American, were also formally introduced.

“One of the hallmarks of [our network] is our vocal and passionate fan base,” declared CW President Mark Pedowitz. (He could have been referring to the audience that morning.) He added that the network’s ability to expand next season to Sunday night “is the result of the success of the CW’s ecosystem,” including its robust digital presence and the ongoing growth of CW Seed.

“Starting in October we will have 12 hours of original scripted series on our schedule; more than any other broadcast network besides CBS,” he added. It was one of the more dramatic statements any programming executive made all week.

Also making a strong impact: Pedowitz’ reminder that Riverdale is The CW’s most-watched digital series.  As it happens, Riverdale is currently the network’s buzziest show. Next year, perhaps The CW should also host a presentation during NewFront Week.

Fox – 3.5 Jacks for the presentation, 5 Jacks for the party

We can’t blame Fox for focusing so intently on sports during its presentation at the Beacon Theater, given that the fate of the network is so uncertain right now with the pending acquisition of so much of 21st Century Fox by The Walt Disney Company and the fact that, for now at least, the NFL (especially Thursday Night Football) will be the rock-solid centerpiece of what promises to be a very shaky season for what is currently being referred to as New Fox.

But sometimes less is more, and the prolonged sports segment in the middle of the presentation slowed it down to a crawl, even with appearances by such superstars as Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Alex Rodriguez and Eli Manning.Had the rest of the presentation been a knockout it may not have mattered.  But it wasn’t, so it did.

In defense of Fox the challenge of orchestrating its Upfront event had to be more demanding than usual, given the massive likely changes that are swirling around the parent company right now. But it seemed as though everyone was off their game or playing a different game altogether. Sean Combs, always a pro at these things, didn’t know when to get off the stage after pumping the second season of his reality competition series The Four. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Fox Television Group Dana Walden basically had to tell him to go. Jamie Foxx (pictured above), on hand to promote his upcoming reality show Beat Shazam, won over the entire crowd with his infectious enthusiasm and unbridled good vibes, but he couldn’t get Fox President, Advertising Revenue Joe Marchese to bust a move with him on stage.

Later in the presentation, a laugh-free “comedy routine” by Tim Allen (whose ABC cast-off Last Man Standing was rescued by Fox) fell embarrassingly flat.

Fortunately Foxx was on hand to save the day, and the night, adding more energy than anyone else to the presentation and then literally taking over the afterparty at the Wollman Rink in Central Park. At the latter he spontaneously took over the DJ station, pulled happy guests onto the dance floor to boogie with him and enticed other Fox stars (including DJ Khaled and the talented stars of Star) to perform with him. It was great to see stars (especially major ones) having a good time and actually participating, rather than simply standing in corners having their pictures taken with guests and then bolting for the exits. (Even Diddy and Fergie, host of The Four, stuck around for a long while, plainly in no hurry to leave.)

It doesn’t matter if Beat Shazam lives or dies on Current Fox. Next year, New Fox must bring J. Foxx back to host its presentation and its party. (If that means whipping up another reality or scripted series for him, so be it.) I’ve been covering Upfront Weeks for the better part of three decades and I have never seen one individual command an event and a party in such effortless, energetic style. Bravo!

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