Upfront Openers from Past to Present

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: Upfront Openers from Past to Present

No doubt many of you reading this blog today have just spent an extraordinary amount of time opining on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the new shows and schedules being introduced for next fall. Everyone is an armchair quarterback at this time of year -- and the last thing you want to read is yet another prognostication.

Fear not, this is not that blog.

I’ve been away from the broadcast Upfronts for several years since moving from the agency side of the business, so I was curious to see how the “Big Show” had evolved over the last decade -- and in my newest role as a representative of local broadcast affiliates across the U.S., I’ll admit I have a vested interest in how well broadcast television promotes itself. 

In the many years that I listened, forecasted and predicted hits and misses in the TV landscape, I always found that the senior executives’ opening lines were always the most telling. Typically confident, the small range in hyperbolic rhetoric often mimicked the close races of network performance, with the occasional frank appeal of a struggling contender.  In those days I carried around a small, blue velvet notebook that captured these opening sentiments year after year.  When I retired that notebook in 2006, I had the makings of a pretty interesting Top 10 List of network executives’ opening lines (rankings, of course, are my own):

  1. “MSNBC is America’s True News Channel.”  Keith Turner 2002/03 NBC Upfront
  2. More than ratings, quality is the single greatest asset to offer advertisers.” Mike Shaw, 2001/02 ABC Upfront
  3. “There isn’t a TV brand in the world that can touch us.” Keith Turner, 2001/02 NBC Upfront
  4. “Viacom Global Corporation is the #1 advertising resource in your world.” Les Moonves, 2000/01 CBS Upfront
  5. “Welcome to the official presentation of the best fall lineup I’ve ever presented.” Mike Mandelker, 2001/02 UPN Upfront
  6. “We know who we are and where we want to be.  Quality shows that reach a quality audience.”Jeff Zucker, 2003/04 NBC Upfront
  7. “The power of network television is in delivering real meaning and resonance.”  Mike Shaw, 2003/04 ABC Upfront
  8. “I’m sorry.” Jamie Kellner, 2000/01 WB Upfront
  9. “We’re making three promises to our advertisers: The next hit comedy, quality TV and continued dominance on Thursday night.” Keith Turner, 2004/05 NBC Upfront
  10. We won May for the first time since 1983.” Les Moonves, 2002/03 CBS Upfront

Those of you who’ve been around in this industry for a while will likely appreciate and recall the various circumstances, strategies and personalities that informed those openers, but what strikes me in contrast to last week’s presentations is how these comments highlight what network television has always done best -- delivered a high quality audience through the development of “hit” shows. The early 2000s had not yet seen the impact of time-shifting, citizen journalism or social engagement. Quality audiences were pretty much just people who appreciated and flocked to good entertainment and had some extra shekels to spend on consumer goods.  Anyone considering fan culture behaviors was ahead of their time.

Network Upfront presentations were about new content, scheduling and the distance between the No. 1 and No. 2 players across a small subset of core age and sex demographics.  Cable was not a factor, except on Sunday night when HBO was changing the audience dynamics with edgy, original programming.  There were no serious competitors for television ad budgets, just speculation on how the pie would ultimately be shared among the key players.

Fast forward to the 2015/16 Upfront presentations and there are a few noteworthy changes.  First and foremost, despite the variety of media formats gunning for broadcast dollars (and the prognostications of TV’s demise) a ticket to a broadcast Upfront presentation is almost as scarce as its on-air audience these days.  Given that the venues themselves haven’t gotten any smaller, we can only conclude that marketers still have rabid interest in supporting network television.

Nearly every network has a live, online streaming presentation available for those not lucky enough to procure a seat in an auditorium, but these options, frankly, introduce a range of technological issues not to mention the fact that it’s impossible to gauge industry reaction from a conference room.  Floating through the various after-parties I did also take note of the seeming abundance of youthful buyers who were embracing engagement with network talent, a reassuring moment of realization that not all Millennials have written off television.

And what of this year’s openers?  Perhaps indicative of our ever-shortening attention spans, NBC’s Bob Greenblatt opened the week’s festivities with, “I promise you that this presentation will be a half hour shorter than last year’s,” reminding the crowd of how they waited 17 minutes last May before seeing the first new series clip.  Gracing the stage later in the presentation, Linda Yaccarino put the stake squarely in the ground, claiming the NBC event as a “celebration of premium video at the center of an entire media ecosystem.”

Yaccarino’s remarks were transcendent, asking the audience to go ahead and embrace the digital evolution of our times, so long as they keep in mind that broadcast television is the eternal spring of quality entertainment.  She wasn’t the only network executive to position broadcast in the face of digital.

Later that afternoon, Fox’s ad sales chief, Toby Byrne, opened with a pitch for the portfolio of assets at Fox Networks (broadcast and cable), claiming that big ideas lead to big impact over “sub-premium online video”.  Over at Fox, the content fan is the epicenter: “Bring our fans to your brands.”

ABC’s Ben Sherwood, on the other hand, went beyond just claiming fans to actually delineating their behavior as part of a winning strategy, “Our shows are the most loved, most talked about and the most social,” promising the network’s intent to “connect brands in newer and smarter ways,” he said. 

“New and smart” is really just code for Big Data techniques, a new theme that even the Tiffany network co-opted.  Positioning itself within the analytic rhetoric of the digital sector, CBS’s Jo Ann Ross’s opener, “Big Data is meaningless without a big audience to target with,” got right to the core of pitting broadcast against digital channels. While digital will always be a targetable medium, it can never be mass in the same way that broadcasters can deliver.  Broadcasters, on the other hand, have the capability to do both because their content is delivered across both analog and digital channels -- an important differentiator in a world where marketers still need to build awareness alongside one-to-one messaging.  As Les Moonves stated, “When we factor all places people watch CBS across platforms, it is more ‘viewership’ than a decade ago.”

Finally, the one opener that was most reminiscent of times past was over at The CW where Rob Tuck pitched an expanding network footprint. “This has been the best season ever for the CW,” he said. “Our ratings are up year-over-year for the third season in a row, broadening our audience with more men.”

So while it’s been nearly ten years since my last Upfront season, it was refreshing to see that the quality of content is still taking center stage.  Despite what was likely a strong inclination to do so, data science and analytics did not overshadow the point of our gatherings.  I suppose that old adage is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Better targeting and insight aren’t new concepts.  We were doing that in the late 1990’s with optimization. To borrow an opener from one of last week’s presenters, we just have “newer and smarter” tools now.

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