Despite Writers’ Strike, Upfront Show Goes On

Writers Guild of America members and supporters picket outside Disney’s May 16 upfront presentation at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
Writers Guild of America members and supporters picket outside Disney’s May 16 upfront presentation at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. (Image credit: Alex Kent/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The networks had to go with Plan B, and perhaps even Plan C, for Upfront Week in New York, with the striking writers protesting outside the ballrooms where the networks showed off their new shows and strategies. That meant executives, not star producers and performers, were talking up the scripted programming news from the stage. And the scripted shows — the main focus of upfront presentations for as long as they’ve gone on — were largely pushed to the end of the presentations. 

NBCUniversal presented at Radio City Music Hall May 15, and NBC News talent introduced scripted programming, such as Willie Geist, host of Sunday Today, talking up the Saturday Night Live 50th anniversary special. Stephanie Ruhle of MSNBC’s The 11th Hour even took a stab at likening scripted dramas to news, noting how a good drama “raises the curtain on the inner workings of other worlds.”

Executive Shifts at NBCU

NBC also had the additional challenge of presenting without Jeff Shell, fired as CEO in late April, and Linda Yaccarino, former chairman, NBCU advertising and partnerships, whose move to Twitter broke when she was rehearsing for the upfront. 

“What was more surprising today?” asked Mark Lazarus, chairman, NBCU television and streaming, who followed the video of teddy bear Ted that opened the NBCU show. “Seeing a foul-mouthed teddy bear or seeing me on stage?” 

Ted is a Peacock series. 

Every presenting media company played up their streaming networks. Moments after stepping on stage, Marianne Gambelli, Fox president of advertising sales, marketing and brand partnerships, boasted about Tubi’s 64 million active monthly users during a presentation at at the Manhattan Center May 15. Next out at Fox were Nicole Parlapiano, Tubi chief marketing officer, and Mark Rotblat, Tubi chief revenue officer, who spoke before Rob Wade, Fox Entertainment CEO, stepped on stage. 

With unscripted stuff playing an expanded role on the networks’ upcoming schedules, Wade introduced Allison Wallach, president of unscripted programming, who described the David Spade Shark Tank spoof Snake Oil and Jamie Foxx’s music competition series We Are Family.

Michael Thorn, president of scripted, came out after Wallach was done. 

Presenting May 16, TelevisaUnivision did not have picketers outside its
Pier 36 venue
, and could more freely talk up scripted fare, with shows made in
Mexico. Those on display included telenovela adaptation El Extrano Retorno De Diana Salazar and Circo Gomez. Both are in the works for streamer Vix. 

TelevisaUnivision also said its TUDN sports division will work with CBS Sports to produce a Spanish-language Super Bowl LVIII telecast next February.

Also on May 16 was The Walt Disney Co. at the Javits Center. Ryan Seacrest came out to talk up largely scripted stuff, including ABC’s Abbott Elementary, Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building and FX’s The Bear; after the presentation featured sports, including Serena Williams and Damar Hamlin, news, unscripted, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm and Pixar. 

Strike Prompted Pivots

When Warner Bros. Discovery presented at the Theater at Madison Square Garden May 17, Jon Steinlauf, Discovery chief U.S. ad sales officer, shared that the shindig was not exactly the show the company planned to put in before the writers’ strike. The executives talked up new streamer Max; CNN; an Ellen DeGeneres unscripted show and Jason Momoa hosting “Shark Week,” before Kathleen Finch, chairman and chief content officer, U.S. networks group, spoke about TNT drama The Lazarus Project. Casey Bloys, chairman and CEO, HBO and HBO Max content, shared about HBO drama The Idol, True Detective and Robert Downey Jr. spy series The Sympathizer

The CW, presenting May 18, showed off a number of series acquired overseas, including Canadian imports Run the Burbs, Sullivan’s Crossing and Son of a Critch

Paramount Global, which owns CBS, avoided its usual Carnegie Hall presentation for more intimate gatherings in April. Netflix presented its new stuff virtually on May 17. 

The presentations were, for the most part, shorter than in previous years. NBCU went 90 minutes, down from its usual two hours. Fox finished up at a slim 52 minutes. When Luis Fonsi came out to perform at the end of the TelevisaUnivision presentation, only about an hour had passed. Disney, for its part, went close to two hours — and that was without Jimmy Kimmel’s annual industry-skewing monologue at the end. Kimmel was on the sidelines due to the strike. 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.