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Broadcast Nets Proclaim Relevance From NYC Stages

Why This Matters: With no big broadcast hits from last season to crow about, networks will tout their streaming efforts at this week’s upfront.

The broadcast networks enter Upfront Week without a whole lot to brag about. Amidst a TV landscape that grows more competitive each day, none of the shows unveiled on the grand stages of Manhattan in mid-May 2018 truly stand out today. ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC are hopeful one or two series on display this week may end up popping come fall.

“There hasn’t been a huge breakout hit this season and that has to be concerning,” media consultant Bill Carroll said. “More competition on the digital front each season makes things that much more competitive.”

NBC kicks things off with a presentation at Radio City Music Hall May 13. Fox takes over the Beacon Theatre that afternoon. Univision holds what it is calling an “immersive activation” at Center415 on May 13, and Telemundo holds a gala at Hammerstein Ballroom the evening of May 13.

May 14 sees ABC at Lincoln Center. May 15 has WarnerMedia at The Theater at Madison Square Garden and CBS at Carnegie Hall. May 16 showcases The CW at New York City Center.

Each network needs a ratings-gobbling new program to take the place of hit shows that are winding down. CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory wraps May 16. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has ended on The CW, and Jane the Virgin is set to conclude. ABC’s Modern Family has one season remaining.

Some wonder how much time is left for NBC stalwart Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which is signed on for season 21, topping Gunsmoke and the original Law & Order. SVU’s lengthy run truly stands out. “Unless a show is delivering a really big audience, you get to the point where it’s, is it realistic that they’re gonna go for 10 years?” Carroll wondered.

New Faces on Stage

Upfront Week occurs after an extraordinary amount of executive turnover among the networks. Late last year, Charlie Collier, AMC Networks president and general manager, shifted to CEO of Fox Entertainment, succeeding Gary Newman, and Karey Burke came on as ABC entertainment president after Channing Dungey stepped down. Bob Greenblatt stepped down as entertainment chairman at NBC and now suits up for Warner-Media.

“There’s a lot of churn going on in the executive suite,” said Preston Beckman, former senior strategist at Fox and chairman of media consulting outfit The Beckman Group. “We have to see how that plays out in terms of what goes on the air.”

Perhaps most notably, Leslie Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS, departed in September following sexual misconduct allegations. For many, his absence will be intensely felt May 15. “Les, on stage, at Carnegie Hall — it had become a tradition,” Carroll said.

Industry consolidation will also shake up the presentations. At the ABC shindig, FX Networks chairman John Landgraf and National Geographic Global Networks president Courteney Monroe step on stage alongside the veteran ABC execs, reflecting Disney’s acquisition of Fox assets, including FX and Nat Geo.

“We’ll start to see how all those management changes affect strategy and marketing at the networks,” Beckman, who is consulting for Fox during its transition, said.

Down With OTT

The broadcast networks will talk up their streaming initiatives, including Disney+, NBCU’s service and CBS All Access, during Upfront Week. Disney+ debuts in November and NBCU’s service in 2020, while CBS All Access has been operational for years. “It will be interesting to see if CBS makes All Access more a part of its overall offerings during its presentation,” Magid senior VP of global media and entertainment Mike Bloxham said. “Networks will be pitching combined linear and SVOD content during upfront season.”

With streaming commanding so much of viewers’ attention, the broadcasters want to make it clear they are set up for that game. “Everyone wants to show they’re part of streaming,” Carroll said, “that they’re going forward in that direction.”

As the programming budgets for the streaming players get larger and larger, one can’t help but wonder how much the broadcasters’ upfront presentations matter here in 2019. Yet industry watchers say Upfront Week remains significant. “The presentations are still critical to creating buzz,” Promax president and CEO Steve Kazanjian said.

As long as a giant chunk of advertising time is sold this time of year, the upfronts continue to be a big deal.

“I don’t see the upfronts disappearing in the near term,” Beckman said. “I see them evolving.”