Upfronts 2019: An Englishman In New York On The Long, Strange Trip To The Network Parade

“I don’t take coffee, I take tea, my dear,” Sting sang back in 1987. I, however, at this point will take any source of caffeine there is to power through my first upfronts.

It’s been a wild ride, or a long, strange trip, as the CW president Mark Pedowitz put it.

As an international TV reporter, I’ve long covered the LA Screenings, chasing global buyers through the streets of Hollywood to find out what U.S. shows they’re keen on as the studios roll out the red carpet. But this week I’ve seen how the sausage is made from the network side.

Speaking to upfronts veterans, I get the impression that while, in large parts, it’s remarkably similar to previous years, with talk of which procedural is getting which slot and whether single-camera or multi-camera comedies are more in-demand this year, it’s clear that multibillion-dollar studio consolidation and the raging impact of streaming has had more effect than ever before.

This was evident across the week, and in particular during Disney’s epic presentation, where it took nearly two hours before “ABC” was uttered following appearances from the likes of Nat Geo and FX, while the likes of NBCUniversal, CBS and the CW were touting their own OTT (“oh that thing”) credentials.

The presence of Netflix, Amazon and Apple was felt across midtown Manhattan, though these digital giants rarely were mentioned by name onstage, which makes sense given how they don’t play to the advertising community, lest we forget the real audience for these dog-and-pony shows. It’s apparent that the networks are, however, still competing with the SVODs for eyeballs, with the likes of Paul Telegy and George Cheeks talking up the success of NBC shows on digital platforms and eyeing flexible episode orders and CBS promoting its All Access fare. NBCU also gave the strongest hint yet that classic titles like The Office would eventually be found on its forthcoming streaming service with ad boss Linda Yaccarino promising that its most-loved shows would be “coming home.”

Talking of shows coming home, there must have been some sense of déjà vu at Fox’s presentation as the stars of BH90210 took to the stage nearly 30 years since the show emerged. In front of Rupert Murdoch, nonetheless, who I imagine was there back in the day, giving new Fox boss Charlie Collier’s welcome to “our startup company” a strange taste.

There were sweet sendoffs for some of the longest-running shows on broadcast television; The Big Bang Theory boss Chuck Lorre reminding people what Nina Tassler thought of its first attempt at the comedy pilot; the stars of Supernatural poking fun at no longer being hot, young things; and the cast of Modern Family taking center stage at Disney’s event, with a particularly classy touch from star Julie Bowen, who introduced Karey Burke as a “fearless” leader.

Burke, clad in ABC red, delivered one of the best zingers of the week when she mentioned Fresh Off the Boat’s return, “still starring Constance Wu.”

It also was fun to see the late-night hosts rip into their own; particularly Jimmy Kimmel’s 16th roast of ABC in person – fave gags including, “For years I’ve been flying out here to tell you guys that the new ABC shows suck. This year, I’m here to tell you that the new FX shows, the new Nat Geo shows, they all suck, too” and “the Obamas are making TV shows and Trump is running the country. If this isn’t some Freaky Friday-type bullshit.”

James Corden’s takedown of CBS’ cancellation of Murphy Brown (“What, you’re kidding — they went so big on it last year”) was one of the highlights of the Carnegie Hall event, while NBCU’s upfront, which, as always, was the first of the week and feels so long ago, was talent heavy. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler could read from the phone book and make the room laugh, and Kenan Thompson’s Steve Harvey roast (“I have a medical condition that prevents me from saying no”) was timely, and Pete Davidson and Seth Myers both went after Oscar winner Rami Malek, who the latter joked still couldn’t get out of the event despite his best actor Oscar win.

It was reassuring to see some familiar faces; the number of Brits fronting primetime U.S. television seems to be growing each year. Nicholas Pinnock (left) and Indira Varma fronting 50 Cent-exec produced legal drama For Life was a nice touch, Michael Sheen is electric as a Hannibal Lecter-esque serial killer in CBS’ Prodigal Son alongside Essex-born, Waterloo Road star Tom Payne, the cast of the British Love Island were having fun and coupling up with ad buyers at CBS’ extravaganza, and Corden comes across as more British than ever when gently ribbing his Late Late Show paymasters.

The most surprising thing for me was the prevalence of sports and news. It’s obvious how much football (or American football, as those of us from across the pond still consider it), is a core part of the broadcasting landscape. From CBS’ game lineup opening featuring a bedazzled jersey-wearing ad sales chief JoAnn Ross alongside NFL broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo to Fox’s Charlie Collier’s midshow locker room interview coming after Terry Bradshaw and crew dominated the newly single network’s Beacon Theater presentation. There were more jokes about the size of NFL players calves during the week than I expected, and I never quite understood how important college football was to the networks. ACC is the latest acronym that I had to google midshow.

It was a grueling week, particularly with the New York City rain, but sign me up for next year.

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