Let’s get the most important ABC upfront questions out of the way first. Yes, Jimmy Kimmel was back this year. And yes, he was as funny as buyers needed him to be after a sluggish upfront week so far.
While Kimmel was the most entertaining part of the presentation for buyers who attended the first ABC-Freeform upfront at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall in New York, the network focused on a different ABC star for much of the event: Roseanne Barr.
After all, her revival of Roseanne overcame a shaky debut at last year’s upfront to become this season’s most-watched entertainment show, and the network wasn’t shy about reminding buyers of that fact over and over again. As Ben Sherwood, co-chairman, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney-ABC Television Group, put it, “If anyone came to play a drinking game based on how many times we mention Roseanne, you’re welcome.”
After all, “the last time we had the No. 1 show at ABC was 24 years ago,” he said. “That’s a little bit of trivia that we have conveniently chosen not to mention in the last 24 years.”
Barr was the first person on stage, following a taped opening in which ABC and Freeform talent auditioned in front of American Idol’s judges for the chance to open the event. Barr won by singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and joked, “I’m thrilled to share my vocal talents with America again,” referring to her controversial 1990 national anthem performance.
Sherwood explained why ABC and Freeform, which integrated their ad sales teams last year, were presenting a combined upfront: “We believe together Freeform and ABC are a powerful combination, poised to capture the hearts and minds of your target consumers, from teenagers to baby boomers and everybody in between.”
Ad sales chief Rita Ferro made a brief appearance and played a sizzle reel with testimonials about the company’s brand integrations from clients like Suzy Deering (CMO, North America, eBay), Luke Kigel (senior director, total brand experience, Johnson & Johnson) and Vinay Shahani (vp, integrated marketing operations, Toyota North America).
“We deliver reach, we deliver engagement, and most importantly, we deliver results,” said Ferro, who also touted Luminate, the company’s suite of advanced advertising offerings that it rolled out last week.
But back to Roseanne: “Has anyone mentioned it’s the No. 1 show on television?” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey joked later in the presentation, after that fact had been mentioned several times. She said said one in 10 Americans have seen the premiere.
Dungey said ABC’s inclusive slate results in more loyal and engaged viewers. “Our viewers can tune in and see themselves represented on the screen in a positive way,” she said.
Other than Roseanne, ABC also had the No. 1 new drama in The Good Doctor, which averaged 22 million viewers each week on all platforms. “I wasn’t even allowed in this room last year,” said Freddie Highmore. “Times really have changed!”
But even with its new successes, which have the network tied for second place with Fox and CBS in the 18-49 demo this season, “there’s more work to be done, and we intend to keep the momentum going,” said Dungey, who walked buyers through the new schedule that ABC unveiled this morning.
Nathan Fillion, returning to the network after Castle, introduced the trailer for his new drama, The Rookie, and told the younger buyers in the audience, “If you don’t know me, that’s all right. Safe to say, I’m probably a pretty big deal to your mom.”
New drama A Million Little Things seems to be ABC’s attempt at a This Is Us-like drama.
The fall’s new comedies include Single Parents and The Kids Are Alright.
The best, and certainly cutest, fall trailer ABC screened was for Dancing With the Stars: Juniors, but the network did not make that one publicly available.
ABC saved the best for (nearly) last, as Kimmel, who skipped last year’s upfront with his then-newborn son recuperating from heart surgery, returned for his annual roast of ABC, upfront week and the entire TV industry. (Kimmel spoke with Adweek last fall about his upfront history at ABC.) Speaking of his son, Billy, who turned a year old just three weeks ago, Kimmel said “You’ll be happy to know he’s doing much, much better than network television.”
Kimmel killed as usual. Here were some of the highlights:
- On the first ABC-Freeform upfront: “I’ve been a big Freeform fan since 20 minutes ago when I learned what it was.”
- On the company’s new slogan, “Forward. Together”: “Hilary Clinton had a yard sale, and she let us have that for almost nothing.”
- On Fox’s JAZ pods: “JAZ pods sounds like something you’d use to wash leotards.”
- On Comcast’s efforts to upend the pending Disney-Fox merger: “Comcast is like the surprise ex-boyfriend who shows up on The Bachelorette right before she’s about to get engaged. …We got Peacock-blocked.”
- On CBS’ decision to revive Murphy Brown next season: “CBS knows what millennials want, and they’ll be damned if they give it to them.”
- On ABC’s ill-fated Marvel’s Inhumans: “ABC did something remarkable last year. Somehow they managed to have the only unsuccessful project with the word Marvel in the title. It had never been done before.”
- On blockchain: “You’re going to hear a lot about blockchain this week, and here’s what’s important about it: Nobody has any idea what it is. You don’t know, we definitely don’t know, but what we do know is we’re going to charge you up the ass for it.”
- On the declining linear ratings: “Our ratings are going down, and our prices are going up. Too bad, eat it!”
But Kimmel’s most excoriating material was directed at ABC’s midseason drama Whiskey Cavalier, which Dungey hadn’t even mentioned at that point. “It took a while. We finally came up with a title worse than Cougar Town,” he said. Then, after reading the show’s admittedly preposterous description, he said, “Should we cancel it now?”
His bit was so cutting that the audience laughed when the title flashed on the screen minutes later during Dungey’s midseason portion of the presentation. And stars Scott Foley and Lauren Cohen made matters worse when they stumbled through their introduction, which ended with Foley moaning, “Please God, roll the clip!”
Dungey did her best to salvage the situation, telling the audience, “I’m gonna just tell you, when we’re here celebrating Season 10 of Whiskey Cavalier, I’m going to bring Jimmy back out, here, and we will talk about it.” But the damage had already been done.
Other midseason trailers included dramas The Fix and Grand Hotel.
During his time on stage, Freeform president Tom Ascheim said his network has “really hit our stride” two years after its brand relaunch and is No. 2 this season in among women ages 18 to 34. With new hits like Grown-ish and Siren, and an upcoming Marvel series (Cloak and Dagger) and Pretty Little Liars spinoff The Perfectionists, “it’s the best vehicle for you to tap into the most influential generation in America,” Ascheim said.
The event, which was more briskly paced than yesterday’s sluggish NBCU and Fox presentations, closed out with Bebe Rexha singing “Meant to Be” alongside several of this season’s American Idol contestants.