TV networks did their darndest this week to distract media buyers and advertisers from the reality of dire TV ratings. Several even avoided the typical practice of splashing graphics on giant screens to depict how they are No. 1 with women who buy soap or men who watch sports.
Instead, they tried to woo marketers with gyrating dancers, non-existent streaming services and boasts about their sheer size thanks to recent mega-deals.
But we aren’t completely jaded. If there’s one takeaway from TV networks pitching their content to advertisers in this week's upfronts, it’s that the industry is in a very uncomfortable limbo.
Networks must still rely on traditional linear TV for much of their gross ratings points, while necessarily preparing for a time when that will likely change.
So before you set off for a weekend of post-upfronts self-care, here's a brief recap of the week.
Streaming video was one of the biggest buzzwords of the week; it turned up in late-night comics' jokes about over-the-top services and in fuzzy descriptions of video platforms that aren't even selling ad inventory yet. But there’s so much anticipation for these platforms that NBC Universal was able to generate buzz just by implying “The Office” would be available on its service.
WarnerMedia also had little in the way of updates, other than to say its service will include ads but not until the second phase of its launch.
The most significant piece of streaming news this week was Walt Disney gaining full operational control of Hulu thanks to a deal with Comcast to buy its stake.
NBCU arguably put on the most exciting show of the bunch, with multiple musical performances from Latin superstar Luis Fonsi and “The Voice” judges Kelly Clarkson, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and John Legend. It was a star-studded affair that included appearances from the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” Olympic athletes, several Kardashians and the cast of “This Is Us.” But the fanfare overshadowed its content.
Slimmed-down Fox tried its mightiest to convince advertisers to believe it’s a startup. Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier told a story about how media mogul Rupert Murdoch called him and asked him if he wanted to run a startup. When Collier asked Murdoch the name of said startup, Murdoch said, “Fox.” In some ways, Fox did look like a startup, with a presentation that several agency execs called “unpolished.” The network messily ping-ponged between its entertainment programming and its sports content. And the start-up messaging was confusing, since Collier also boasted about the network delivering some of the largest audiences on TV and about broadcasting next year's Super Bowl.
Larger than life
On the other side, Walt Disney, WarnerMedia, NBCU and even CBS were eager to scream, “Look how big we are.” After its acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets, Disney, unsurprisingly, had the most to show off, though it was a bit jarring to see posters for shows like FX’s “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” adorned with a Disney logo. CBS’s claim was less believable. The company flashed logos for Showtime (which isn’t ad-supported) and fledgling cable channels Pop TV and Smithsonian Channel, along with its publishing company Simon & Schuster.
It was the first upfront for Walt Disney since its Fox acquisition, and boy, was it a long one. While the Mouse House did its best to showcase its diverse offerings, pitching ESPN alongside ABC to advertisers for the first time, the alphabet network got lost in the two-hour-plus event.
CBS tried to forget its past under former CEO Leslie Moonves, but his shadow loomed large in Carnegie Hall. Execs at the eye network emphasized the company’s efforts to feature more diversity in its programming. In one especially moving moment, the teary-eyed cast of "The Big Bang Theory" took a final bow.
The sitcom aired its last episode on Thursday night and went out with, well, a bang. The episode averaged 18 million viewers, a 3.1 rating in the 18-49 demo and a 4.7 rating among adults 25-54, Anthony Crupi reports. That translates to about 5.6 million viewers in CBS’s target demo. Despite impressive numbers, the episode didn’t break any records—at its peak the show averaged around 20 million viewers. It cost advertisers about $1.4 million for a 30-second spot in the nerds' swan song.
There is little to say about The CW since it renewed most of its series long before its presentation this week. Not to be outdone by its larger broadcast brethren, network President Mark Pedowitz reminded advertisers that The CW was the “original multi-platform network.”
WarnerMedia, in its first presentation since being acquired by AT&T in June, announced it is broadening its networks. TBS, which has long lived by the slogan “Very Funny,” will now air dramas. This is part of the company’s more nimble programming strategy as it gears up to launch its direct-to-consumer platform in beta later this year.
While every network group made at least a passing mention of its ability to target precise audiences beyond Nielsen age and sex demographics, for the most part, the emphasis on data and targeting was more subdued than in years past.
The nitty gritty of audience targeting was left to AT&T’s ad unit Xandr, which for the first time hosted an upfronts presentation. It used its time to introduce Community, the first phase of its automated marketplace.
Here's a look at the best and worst moments from TV's biggest week.
Which new series will be hits and which will flop? Here are our predictions for the 2019-2020 season.
And you can catch up on Ad Age’s comprehensive upfronts coverage here.