Stability, safety, sameness: TV networks presentations of the 2017-18 TV season boiled down to three not very exciting words. But within the repeated promises of brand-friendly environments and revivals of old shows, there were a few exciting stage performances, bizarre moments and at least a laugh or two.
Most surprising escort to an after-party: Forget the coach buses that Fox uses to shuffle people from its Beacon Theater presentation to its Central Park after-party. Jon Batiste and his Stay Human band from Stephen Colbert’s late-night show escorted CBS upfront attendees from Carnegie Hall to the Plaza Hotel with a makeshift parade. The band played its way down two long blocks to the hotel, high-fiving people in cabs and stopping for photos. “Why are people in suits and following a band?” we heard one passerby say as they tried to weave their way through the mob of advertisers and press. Yes, why are we?
Best digital zing: TV executives often make subtle or passing digs at digital media when they pitch their shows, but this year concerns about ads on horrible content at YouTube and pressure for better measurement encouraged networks to pump up the volume.
“Promising brand safety is a pretty low bar, and some companies can’t even do that,” said Linda Yaccarino, chairman-advertising sales and client partnerships NBC Universal.
“When it comes to measurement, we don’t grade our own homework,” she added. “What the hell is a ‘view’ anyway? Has a ‘like’ ever walked into your store, purchased your product or drove a car out of the dealership?”
Joe Marchese, Fox’s newly minted president of ad revenue, argued against Facebook’s repeated claims that it has a Super Bowl on mobile every day. Marchese showed off some charts to illustrate that that on any given day of the week, Fox delivers 768 million impressions, while YouTube has 27 million and Facebook 150,000.
But the funniest shot came from CBS, which displayed a screengrab of a YouTube video of a sinking ship with an ad at the bottom promoting a cruise line. “We won’t let this ship happen to you,” said Jo Ann Ross, president-network sales, CBS.
Best sitcom reunion: Yes, there was more than one sitcom reunion to choose from. The cast of “Roseanne” was wheeled onstage at ABC’s presentation, seated on the couch from the show’s old set, to promote its eight-episode revival. But it seemed awkward between Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, with their banter lacking chemistry. If their appearance was any indication of how the show will come off, expect plenty of cringe-worthy moments.
It was a completely different vibe when the cast of “Will and Grace” performed at NBC’s upfront earlier in the week. It was as though Will, Grace, Karen and Jack picked up right from where they left off a decade ago.
Best jab at a rival network: CBS CEO Les Moonves knows how to strike a blow at his competitors. “As viewing habits evolve, it’s time to move beyond generic demographics,” he said. “The old idea of just one coveted demographic is so dated. You know, like ‘American Idol.'”
Weirdest party game: As part of a promotion for its new Marvel series “The Gifted,” Fox set up a booth at its party to test advertisers for the “mutant gene.” You know what doesn’t sound like a good idea? Handing over my DNA to Fox. Talk about targeted advertising.
Most uncomfortable introduction: Seth MacFarlene brought Fox Television Group CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman to the stage, describing them as “the only two people at Fox not being sued.”
Best cookie: To keep ad buyers’ stomachs full, both Fox and ABC doled out cookies during their presentations. Beverly Goldberg (a character on ABC’s “The Goldbergs” played by Wendi McLendon-Covey) walked up the aisle at Lincoln Center handing out cookies with the faces of her TV kids. But that couldn’t top the warm chocolate chip cookies Fox distributed courtesy of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey. If the loud rustling of cookie bags meant anything, advertisers got more excited about the treat than what Newman was saying onstage.
Grandest show of opulence: CBS’s after-party at The Plaza Hotel. This is the second year the Eye Network has hosted the shindig at the icon of luxury. Sprawling across three floors of the Plaza, including the entire Todd English Food Hall, CBS’s outlay made the case that TV is still the biggest game in town.
Best musical performance: There were no shortage of musical numbers. Lea Michele opened ABC’s show, and Fox had performances from the cast of “Empire” and “Star” as well as a beautiful rendition of “Seasons of Love” to promote “Rent Live.” But the best came at the beginning of the week, when Jennifer Hudson tore down Radio City Music Hall with songs from “Dreamgirls” during NBC Universal’s presentation. Hudson is joining the cast of “The Voice” in the fall.
Funniest presentation: Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t on hand during ABC’s upfront for his annual roast of network TV and the advertisers who keep paying more money for declining ratings. (He was home with his son, who was born last month with a heart defect.) But Kimmel did send a letter: “As many of you know, I am boycotting the ABC upfront this year to protest the cancellation of ‘Dr. Ken,'” the letter began. “Sorry I can’t be there with you this year. If you believe that you are exactly the kind of ad buyers we want …. I promise to be there next year on the off chance network TV continues to exist.”
In his absence, the funniest presentation belonged to CBS, with late-night host Stephen Colbert taking the opportunity to thank Donald Trump for improving the fortunes of his “Late Show,” where Colbert now revels in savaging the president.
“It’s been an honor to be on stage and talk about that day’s Trump” scandal, he said. “Unfortunately, the hour I’m spending onstage often means I’m missing the breaking news of tomorrow’s Trump scandal. So by the time my monologue airs, I can sound as out-of-touch with what’s going on at the White House as Sean Spicer does.”
There was more:
“Speaking of Spicer, I don’t know if you have seen him lately… it helps to have a pair of hedge trimmers around.”
“I think of what I’m doing here today kind of like a White House press conference. I’m out here, I’m just going to say whatever my boss told me to, and when it’s over I will leave without answering any of your questions.”
“There is only one word to describe this president – and the FCC has asked me not to use it any more.”
“I don’t know if you heard but the president recently had some harsh things to say about me. He said my language is not appropriate for the ‘Late Show’ because kids are watching. Who says only old people watch CBS? Clearly, we’re No. 1 in the coveted demo of 6- to 12-year-old politically engaged insomniacs.”
“I will say, the president and I do have some things in common. We’re both TV hosts who spend most of our time talking about Donald Trump. Of course, unlike Mr. Trump, my guest knows they’re being taped.”
“Today you will learn about our exciting new fall lineup, unless the president has already leaked it to Russia. I hear Vladimir Putin just finished binge-watching the first season of ‘Young Sheldon.'”
CBS also had James Corden, who took the stage following a clip of the new “Star Trek: Discovery,” which will air on CBS All Access. He poked fun at all of the reboots that will air across broadcast next season: “This is like your own personal Groundhog Day. Can’t we just play the tape from 2002?”