Upfront Week 2023 -- Not at All What I Expected

By Ed Martin Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Upfront Week 2023 -- Not at All What I Expected

Given the mad scramble to reset the content of various presentations once the WGA strike began, not to mention my own less-than-enthusiastic feelings about this tired and tiring tradition, I expected Upfront Week to be even less stimulating than usual. But I was wrong.

Perhaps it was because I watched them on my computer, in the comfort of my home, or because after the last three years media companies have gotten so good at virtual productions, but I was thoroughly engaged by almost everything that NBCUniversal, Fox, The Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. Discovery had to offer. (It is always appropriate to mention that, regardless of how an Upfront event is received, a huge number of talented, dedicated people work tirelessly to put them together and carry them off.)

Some of these companies dwelled a bit too long on sports, but that was understandable given that professional athletes were available to appear without strike-related complications, that many of them are more popular than just about any actor on television, and that broadcast television is increasingly about sports first and everything else second.

The most entertaining moment of the week came right at the start on Monday, with the rousing production number that opened NBCUniversal's show featuring the charmingly abrasive bear Ted (soon to transition from big screen to small with a series on Peacock). The most powerful moment was an appearance by Damon Hamlin during Disney's presentation on Tuesday. (For reviews of these events and more, read Simon Applebaum's Upfront Week reports.) The most amazing party (from what I have heard) was the Telemundo celebration on Tuesday night. In the years immediately prior to the pandemic Telemundo had always thrown the best blasts. Apparently, that hasn't changed. Note to self: Hit Telemundo next year. (Juan Ayala has a recap of this year's Telemundo excitement here.)

What else worked (as Simon Applebaum might ask)? Well, after three years of little (if any) in-person interaction for so many of us, the week provided a valuable opportunity to see in action the new executive ranks (comprised of veterans and newcomers), up close and personal. They were all well-rehearsed and they executed in fine fashion.

For me, the biggest surprise of all was the effectiveness of Netflix's first-ever Upfront Week presentation, which was virtual only. As modern and executive-intensive as it was, the end-result was very similar to that of a traditional "old-timey" broadcast Upfront showcase. I mean that as high praise. Co-CEOs Ted Sarandos (pictured at top) and Greg Peters focused heavily on business strategies; while Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria, Scripted Series Vice President Peter Friedlander, Drama Series Vice President Ginny Howe and Unscripted and Documentary Series Vice President Brandon Riegg focused heavily on content -- a smart move given that advertisers need to be familiar with the streamer's vast array of content before they place their clients' spots. And there was plenty of information about how best to do that President, Worldwide Advertising Jeremi Gorman and Vice President, Global Advertising Sales Peter Naylor. Everyone's remarks were crisp, enticing and to the point, without the heavy-handed explanations one might expect from a newcomer to the business of selling advertising and orchestrating marketing campaigns.

As a member of the television press I found all the talk (and clips) about new and returning series to be very satisfying and well worth my time. When it ended, I wanted to watch several of the shows that had been previewed. That's exactly how I used to feel when I exited Radio City Music Hall or Carnegie Hall after NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and the rest.

Nexstar's event for The CW was similarly smart. It wasn't a true Upfront presentation (like Paramount, Nexstar is going with agency meetings to engage advertisers). Instead it was an in-person (and virtual) press conference for the many journalists who are on the front line of Upfront Week reporting, getting word out to both the business and potential audiences. CW President Dennis Miller and Entertainment President Brad Schwartz took everyone through The CW's fall 2023 schedule in such a way that provided absolute clarity about Nexstar's programming strategy for the network. There can no longer be any doubt about what the "new" CW is up to. Now we'll see what works and what doesn't.

My general enthusiasm for what I watched last week, however, does not change my overall feeling that Upfront presentations as they have always been known are no longer necessary. The industry, like much of the world around it, has changed so completely in recent years that the very idea of a series of events orchestrated by the conglomerates that own most of the television business crushed together into what is now a three-day period seems, in large part, ridiculous -- especially when one considers (as I have been stating for years, even before the pandemic) that so much of the information "revealed" during these presentations is already known to anyone who has an e-mail account or pays even minimal attention to social media. Anyone in the audience -- advertisers and press alike -- who isn't already up on most of the above probably shouldn't be an invited guest in the first place, because it would seem they just aren't paying attention.

These days, there is no excuse for that. But, back in the old days, when each of its events were all about (or mostly focused upon) one network, Upfront Week used to be as informative as it was entertaining. And it was often full of surprises. Enhanced by the eager participation of celebrities -- most of them from scripted programs -- attendees were reminded by accessible senior executives who were stars themselves (Brandon Tartikoff, Howard Stringer, Bob Iger, Les Moonves, Ted Harbert, Warren Littlefield, Kevin Reilly, Nina Tassler, Charlie Collier, Kelly Kahl, etc.) of what had been accomplished and informed of what was to come as far as programming, scheduling, advertising and marketing were concerned. The combination of sitting through a presentation and then talking with participants at afterparties was unarguably invaluable (and admittedly a lot of fun) for anyone who knew how to work a room.

I thought that the ravages of COVID in 2020 and 2021, the wobbly efforts to achieve something resembling the "old normal" in 2022 and the fresh hell of the current WGA strike might have finally convinced the industry to find another way to accomplish its critical messaging to the advertising community. But only Paramount Global seems to have figured that out, opting this year for small agency meetings rather than a big-budget extravaganza. (Paramount's broadcast network CBS -- which for many years produced the Upfront Week event to beat at Carnegie Hall -- had scheduled a presentation of some kind in Los Angeles on May 9. I was eager to see what CBS had in store … but the event was cancelled due to the WGA strike.)

What happens next? With no end in sight for the WGA strike, and potential strikes by SAG/AFTRA and the DGA looming casting even darker shadows over the industry, there is no way to tell. The only certainty is that this post-pandemic, economically unclear, strike-heavy, ultra-competitive season promises to be unlike any that has come before. As we move through it, I think smaller events for advertisers and the press scattered throughout the months ahead might be in order. Like it or not, somethings have to change.

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