The major networks are unveiling their offerings for the coming television season to advertising buyers in Manhattan this week, at a series of events know as the Upfront presentations. Money, prestige and cultural import are at stake. Two New York Times reporters who specialize in media — John Koblin and Sapna Maheshwari — assess what they saw during the NBC presentation at Radio City Music Hall on Monday, the first from the four major broadcast networks.
JOHN Right before NBC’s upfront began, we got a reminder of what a strange affair these presentations are these days: CBS filed a lawsuit against Shari Redstone and is officially at war with its corporate owner, Viacom. So while NBC greeted us with musical performances (Jennifer Lopez, fronting a team of dancers, sang “Dinero” at Radio City), stand-up routines (thank you, Seth Meyers) and lots of glitz and pageantry, the CBS lawsuit was a sobering reminder what a precarious position media companies are in. But, hey, let’s party!
SAPNA I felt a wave of déjà vu because I was just at Radio City a week and a half ago for another big media company pitch to advertisers — except that one was from YouTube. While J. Lo performed briefly today, the YouTube executives hired Ariana Grande, OK Go and Camila Cabello. The new media crowd also invited their thousands of attendees to a huge party right afterward on NBC’s turf — by the rink outside 30 Rock. Alas, that was not the case today.
JOHN NBC used to throw a lavish upfront party, when times were better! This time we were subjected to a two-hour presentation meant to stir up good will toward the many brands that fall under the NBCUniversal banner, which, once again, did not work for me. What is the through line from the talk-show host Andy Cohen giving a shout out to “Bravoholics” — he did do this — to WWE wrestling and “Squawk Box?” I’m still dizzy.
SAPNA Bravo will be dishing out more of the things that make it Bravo: “Project Runway” will return to the network, which will apparently also roll out five new real estate and design series, including “Sweet Home,” which takes place in Oklahoma City, and “Flipping Exes,” about a former couple that flips houses together. As one of my friends put it: “Interesting, Bravo taking on HGTV. Soon I will only need Bravo for mindless hung-over chatter.”
JOHN For a second straight year, there was no Jimmy Fallon, who was a big part of NBC’s presentations in 2015 and 2016, when his ratings were soaring. It’s apparently best to have him lie low, now that he’s in second place to Stephen Colbert. But Seth Meyers was so good.
SAPNA Seth really brought the zingers. After pointing out John Legend’s success in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” he remarked: “You know a network has some range when they have a black Jesus and Megyn Kelly.” And he zeroed in on the network’s troubled morning show when he mentioned NBC’s “No. 1 drama,” which he described as full of heartbreaking reveals, unexpected twists and “the departure of a once-beloved character.” Gasps and laughter followed when he said he was talking about “This Is … the Today Show,” rather than “This Is Us.” Talk about addressing the company’s high-profile #MeToo moment with Matt Lauer head-on.
JOHN NBC News did take center stage again this year, with Lester Holt rattling off a list of stats and superlatives about how great everything is at the network’s news division! He did not mention Matt Lauer or Tom Brokaw. Nor did he congratulate Ronan Farrow, formerly a correspondent at MSNBC, on his new book deal or his Pulitzer Prize. He did find a moment, however, to give a shout-out to Ms. Kelly, even though her hour of “Today” has struggled in the ratings. And Ms. Kelly herself took the stage in a third consecutive upfront appearance for her. She was part of the Fox presentation in 2016 and she had her first NBC public appearance last year. Mr. Lauer introduced her in a way that seems prophetic now: “We’re a family at NBC News. Sometimes, it feels a little dysfunctional.”
SAPNA Speaking of Fox, there was an appearance by Andy Samberg following the news that NBC had picked up “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” after Fox gave it the boot.
JOHN Followed by another former Fox star, Simon Cowell, talking up “America’s Got Talent.” Seth Meyers has a good line about this, when he said NBC was like Fox’s “deadbeat friend” who asks, “Hey, uh, are you going to finish that? Can I have it?”
SAPNA It was so deeply uncomfortable, for me, to see Simon being … nice. And pandering to the advertisers. It freaked me out to see him so off-brand from what I knew growing up!
JOHN What about the Paula Abdul joke?
SAPNA Oh yeah — that bizarre one-liner followed a ventriloquist who won the show last year using a dummy version of Simon to introduce him. He said: “After 18 years of being on television, I am now a puppet. Now I know how Paula felt.” So I guess he still has some of his old savage streak.
JOHN This year NBC’s ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino closed the show by saying, “We just blew the doors off Radio City.”
SAPNA YouTube was in Ms. Yaccarino’s cross hairs last year. This year the target was squarely on Facebook. A video presentation took footage from Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress, with snippets of Ms. Yaccarino dropped in, showing that she would have held up much better during the grilling. Playing up the virtues of old-fashioned television-viewing, Ms. Yaccarino dropped the line, “No family has gathered around a News Feed before, have they?” And this came after a CNBC sizzle reel included a clip of Sheryl Sandberg talking about Facebook’s breach of trust with its users. Advertisers may have been skeptical, though, when Ms. Yaccarino went on to talk about protecting consumer data. One big issue for TV networks is that they don’t exactly have the data that advertisers are craving these days — especially compared with the Silicon Valley companies that keep gobbling up ad dollars.
JOHN If NBC’s upfront was overshadowed by the news of the CBS lawsuit, we’re now off to the Fox upfront, which will be overshadowed by … another merger. We’ll have another chat after our trip to Beacon Theater and the Trump Rink after party.