Disney Squeezes Its Entire Expanded TV Portfolio Into One Super-Sized Upfront Event

The company spotlighted all 6 brands in the week's longest presentation

Disney ad sales chief Rita Ferro showed off the depth of her company's expanded TV portfolio. - Credit by Walt Disney Television/Robert Milazzo
Headshot of Sara Jerde

Disney managed to squeeze all of its TV brands onto the Lincoln Center stage for its first-ever combined upfront, an event that was both comprehensive and time-consuming: at two hours and 19 minutes, it was by far the longest presentation of upfronts week.

Despite the length—considerably longer than the 90-minute presentation Ferro had been aiming for—the company successfully integrated its expanded portfolio of brands following March’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox: ESPN, FX, ABC, ABC News, Freeform and National Geographic.

“The power of the advertising portfolio that we have brought together might be the most exciting thing of all,” said Kevin Mayer, chairman of direct-to-consumer and international at The Walt Disney Company. “In this era of unbelievable choice, brands matter more than ever. And we have the best.”

As Rita Ferro, president of advertising sales and partnerships, kicked off the presentation, she noted that it was an “era of unbelievable choice,” but maintained that Disney’s brands offer “powerful storytelling that connects with people.”

In all, consumers spent more than 45 billion hours with Disney’s stories across brands, and every month the company connects with 275 million people across screens, Ferro claimed.

“Our scale is impactful. The future of TV is TV,” she said. “Consumers are watching these stories across all Disney every day, on all of our platforms.”

“In this era of unbelievable choice, brands matter more than ever. And we have the best.”
Kevin Mayer, chairman of direct-to-consumer and international

And that future includes internet and OTT, which Ferro said accounts for over half of its audiences’ viewing. Disney+, the company’s ad-free streaming service that will roll out in November, didn’t dominate too much of the conversation Tuesday afternoon. Nor did Hulu, despite Disney and Comcast this morning announcing a new agreement that puts all of Hulu’s operational control in Disney’s hands, and could have Comcast sell NBCUniversal’s 33% ownership stake in the streaming service to Disney as early as January 2024.

Each of Disney’s six brands got some time on stage. And each were prefaced with an introduction from a brand that the network has an extenstive partnership with: Genesis for ESPN, MillerCoors for FX, Brita for National Geographic, eBay for Freeform, Lilly for ABC News and Marriott Bonvoy for ABC.

ABC, which until two years ago had the Tuesday afternoon upfront all to itself, was kept offstage until more than 90 minutes into the presentation. New ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke discussed the fall schedule, which was unveiled this morning.

Trailers were shown for several new programs. The shows that seemed to get the biggest reactions were ABC’s Black-ish spinoff, Mixed-ish, a revival of Kids Say the Darndest Things (which will be hosted by Tiffany Haddish) and a new National Geographic series from Gordon Ramsay called Uncharted.

Beyond Mixed-ish, the other new ABC fall series previewed at the event were dramas Stumptown and Emergence.

ABC’s long-running sitcom, Modern Family, also got some love in honor of its upcoming 11th and final season. The cast assembled on-stage while co-creator Steve Levitan reminisced about how the entire pilot was screened for buyers at the upfront presentation a decade ago—a show of faith that hasn’t been repeated since by any network at an upfront.

Burke, who earlier today said she had “no thought” to replace Constance Wu following her controversial tweetstorm last week, reaffirmed to buyers that Fresh Off the Boat had been renewed and “is still starring Constance Wu.”

During his annual upfronts roast, Jimmy Kimmel (who made his 16th appearance in front of buyers) also addressed Wu during his much-loved skewering of the upfront process and overall mockery of the ad industry.

“Only on ABC is getting your show picked up the worst thing that could happen,” he said. Kimmel also poked fun at Ferro’s remarks, noting, “Rita Ferro says, ‘The future of TV is TV.’ Even Sarah Huckabee Sanders was like, ‘What the fuck kind of horseshit is that?’”

All six brands were on display not only at David Geffen Hall, where the main event took place, but in nearby Alice Tully Hall, which was transformed to spotlight each of the company’s brands as everyone chatted over hors d’oeuvres and a dark red custom cocktail (a blueberry gin martini) that at least one person determined “tasted like saw dust.”

The Alice Tully Hall gathering became a running upfront joke, as ESPN personality Kenny Mayne took the stage and joked that it was where the JV squad was assembled (“MetLife wasn’t available?”). It seemed to be enjoyed by the “varsity” squad who gathered across the street at David Geffen Hall, where most presenters took the stage. At Alice Tully Hall, some of the brands also had individual activations, including a green screen that superimposed falling rose petals (from ABC’s Bachelor franchise) onto the picture, or replicated the SportsCenter set.


@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.