Fewer Stars, Fewer Shows, Fewer CEOs and More Picket Lines as Upfronts Wrap

If TV’s upfront week used to be defined by spectacle — a parade of stars and musical performances culminating in glamorous parties with open bars and lobster canapés — to say the 2023 installment was muted would be an understatement.

There were still musical performances, and there were stars (at least from the world of sports, news and reality TV), but the ongoing writers strike made its presence felt.

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“What you’re about to see is not exactly the show we expected to do today,” Warner Bros. Discovery ad sales chief Jon Steinlauf told the crowd of media buyers at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday morning, adding that the company asked only executives to appear “out of respect for our talent, and the WGA.”

“It’s not exactly as we originally planned it, but we live in a dynamic world, and we have definitely found that being able to adjust to a new reality is very useful,” added Netflix co-CEO Greg Peters in the intro to his company’s inaugural upfront, which went virtual at the last minute over concerns around a WGA picket line.

Indeed, in many ways the picket lines defined the week, beginning with NBCUniversal’s upfront at Radio City Music Hall, where more than 200 picketers marched outside of the venue’s doors.

In a week meant to showcase the world of entertainment, the only actors to appear at one of the struck events was Rafael Amaya of Telemundo’s El Señor de los Cielos and William Levy of Telemundo’s Vuelve a Mi, with everyone else turning to their stable of news anchors and sports and reality hosts to fill the void.

Despite the acrimony between studios and writers, there were also signs of respect. Yes, WBD decided not to have talent participate, but there was also an acknowledgement that until there’s a deal, things won’t be the same.

“First, let me just start by saying I am hopeful that a fair resolution is found soon with the writers, that would of course return talent to this stage, and let’s be honest, making this a far more entertaining show,” HBO and Max chief Casey Bloys told the crowd. “Until then you’re kind of stuck with me and my clips.”

“We are grateful for the contribution writers make to our company, and respect their right to demonstrate,” NBCUniversal TV and streaming chief Mark Lazarus said at his company’s event. “It may take some time, but I know we will eventually get through this and the result will be a stronger foundation on which we can all move forward together.”

NBCUniversal also added a disclaimer to a sizzle reel that included interviews with creators like Dick Wolf and Amy Poehler to note that the interviews were conducted before the strike.

And while there were some quips (“I have the number one late night show. I also have the only late night show going right now. So you don’t have a choice,” Fox News host Greg Gutfeld told the crowd at Fox’s upfront Monday night), the mood from executives was one that suggested they hoped a deal could be reached.

But it wasn’t just actors missing from the upfront stages, CEOs were as well. Only YouTube CEO Neal Mohan took the stage for the streaming platform’s Brandcast event Wednesday evening (Netflix too, if you consider the virtual format). At NBCUniversal, Fox, Warner Bros. Discovery, TelevisaUnivision and Disney, CEOs were either watching from the crowd, or absent altogether (NBCU, of course, is currently without a CEO, while Disney CEO Bob Iger was in France, meeting with President Macron).

But the week was, in the words of one media buyer quizzed by The Hollywood Reporter at the afterparty for YouTube’s Brandcast, “low key.” And while they praised the “shorter, tighter” presentations (only Disney hit the two-hour mark), they held out hope that next year, assuming there’s a deal in place, that there’ll be more pizzaz.

There were still musical performances (NBCU alone had three) and there was still some spectacle (Disney bringing out Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, YouTube handing out pizza-shaped cookies, Fox having Derek Jeter and Rob Gronkowski toss signed baseballs and footballs into the crowd), but by upfront standards, it was tame.

On the programming front, the days of broadcast networks unveiling their fall schedules fell by the wayside. There were no calendars displayed on any of the screens all week, and in fact many networks had little in the way of commitments. ABC and NBC announced fall schedules that were mostly strike-proof, and every network was prepared to lard up on reality TV to get them to 2024 should the need arise. Only Netflix, with its bounty of content in the can or nearing completion, debuted trailers or sizzle reels with a meaningful number of scripted programs.

Three different network executives who spoke to THR over the course of the week nonetheless were optimistic that when the strike gets resolved, the upfronts would return, and so would their biggest stars (Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers’ upfront-themed monologues were particularly missed). But they also held out hope that some of the strike-induced changes, like the shorter running times, could stick around.

The billion-dollar advertising deals, after all, get negotiated at conference room tables, not in the cheap seats at Radio City or MSG.

Upfront Superlatives

Best musical performance: Doja Cat, YouTube

Clad in a black cat suit and flanked by a dozen masked dancers in suits, Doja Cat closed out YouTube’s Brandcast with a bang.

Honorable mentions: Luis Fonsi, TelevisaUnivision; Reba McEntire, NBCUniversal.

Best segment about the NFL: Troy Aikman, Joe Buck and Damar Hamlin, The Walt Disney Co.

Five months ago, Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during a critical Monday Night Football game. At Disney’s upfront, he took to the stage to be interviewed by the pair tasked with covering the challenging event from the booth.

Honorable mentions: Roger Goodell at YouTube, TelevisaUnivision’s Super Bowl surprise.

Biggest picket line/protest: NBCUniversal

More than 200 writers (and members of SAG-AFTRA) crowded around Radio City Music Hall’s entrances to kick off upfront week, in a show of force larger than many of the upfronts that would follow.

Honorable mention: Fox, thanks in part to a large crowd of anti-Fox News protesters that yelled things like “insurrectionist!” at attendees as they walked in, while the writers picketed quietly nearby.

Best party atmosphere: Disney/YouTube (tie)

Disney’s post-upfront party included costumes and props from its films and TV shows, Disney ice sculptures, photo booths, plentiful talent in attendance (Pat McAfee held court in one corner for hours), and a view of the sun setting over the Hudson River. YouTube’s post-Brandcast party took over Lincoln Center, with the plaza’s iconic fountain joined by an oversized YouTube play button, as attendees mingled with top creators.

Honorable mention: Fox.

Best party food: TelevisaUnivision

Cuban sandwiches, quesadillas, empanadas and other Latin American fare from local purveyors kept buyers happy, and with the event’s far-flung location (Pier 36 on the Lower East Side), it’s good that the food was plentiful.

Honorable mention: Disney.

Best unintentional joke: Ted, NBCUniversal

A show opener starring the CGI teddy bear voiced by Seth MacFarlane was clearly in the can for weeks, given MacFarlane’s public support for the WGA strike, but a line about Elon Musk’s Twitter “letting all the crazies back in” took on a whole new meaning after NBCU ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino left the company days before the upfront to become CEO of the platform.

Best trailers/sizzle reels: Disney/Netflix (tie)

Disney debuted new trailers for some of its upcoming Marvel and Star Wars programs (and had security walking the aisles to make sure no rapscallions were recording or taking photos), while Netflix loaded up its virtual presentation with new footage from upcoming projects like The Three-Body Problem and the Squid Game competition series.

Honorable mention: Warner Bros. Discovery.

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