The most disruptive upfronts week in a decade, packed with presentations from newly merged and spun-off companies, has come to an end. After a week of hearing the major media companies’ pitches about the 2019-20 TV season, the buyers are ready to have their say. As they kicked off this year’s upfront talks, several of them spoke with Adweek (anonymously) to candidly share their 10 biggest takeaways from the packed week of events and parties—everything from the Mouse House’s problem to … an actual mouse problem.
Ratings? What ratings?
Instead of trying to spin their plummeting linear ratings, as is usually the case, several networks just ignored the elephant in the room altogether, focusing instead on what one buyer termed “peripheral things” like new data conversations or flashy production values (both NBCUniversal and Fox incorporated pyrotechnics into their events). “It was a little bit like, don’t pay attention to the base business. Look at all the things on the periphery and how exciting all that stuff is!” said the buyer. “But there’s nothing that will mask the fact that we have been on a dramatic slide over the past four or five years—and the conversation must change.”
The next This Is Us remains elusive
As buyers bid farewell to the casts of three long-running programs (Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory and Supernatural) during upfronts, they didn’t see anything from the new crop of shows that would likely take their places, or become the next freshman breakout à la This Is Us. “It’s the same-old same-old,” said a buyer. “I don’t think there’s anything here that’s going to help our ratings.” However, another said, “It was actually the best development season I’ve seen in a while. I don’t know if there’s anything I love—but there’s potential.”
Advanced targeting: All talk, no outcomes?
Many companies touted their advanced targeting offerings, but marketers said some of them don’t live up to the hype. “We’ve been having a lot of these conversations with the networks already, and I don’t know that their talk matches what their actual capabilities are,” said one. “Our clients are into it, but the actual legwork required to get those deals done is still in its beginning stages.” Another said that while they are “pleased” with the advancements in technology and data, “it’s still unclear” how advertisers and agencies can “figure out a way to monetize it and aggregate the users and the impressions to keep TV a brand awareness model, and not drive it to the bottom of the funnel.” A third was upset with one company for not showcasing the company’s successful data partnership with their client: “We were the first with them—and they barely talked about it!”
OTT details are MIA
NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia emphasized their upcoming streaming services, but as buyers noted, they didn’t share any new details. “It’s frustrating,” said one buyer. “Do it when you actually have a story to tell!” The lack of clarity about the new OTT offerings is “going to make it hard to evaluate,” said another. “It doesn’t seem like that’s going to play a big role in this year’s upfront.”
Mixed messages from NBCUniversal
NBCUniversal’s Linda Yaccarino said she is passing the upfronts baton to lieutenants Mark Marshall and Laura Molen this year, but buyers aren’t convinced, especially after she seemingly spent more time onstage this presentation than she had in several years. “If you’re passing the baton, why don’t you let them do it?” asked one. “There were some conversations around her needing to be significantly involved still,” said one buyer, who added that Marshall and Molen’s brief appearance onstage compared to Yaccarino’s “speaks volumes” about the state of play. As Yaccarino expands her purview and tries to relinquish some day-to-day duties to Marshall and Molen, “the market is saying, ‘No, you can’t.’” (UPDATE: NBCUniversal reiterated to Adweek that Marshall and Molen will indeed be taking over upfront duties from Yaccarino.)
Fox Corp. is a work in progress
Buyers were mixed on Fox Corp.’s first presentation as a slimmed-down, stand-alone company. “I love an underdog story and I want Fox to be successful,” said one buyer. “But it looked unpolished and unrehearsed compared to the others. The most underwhelming of the bunch.” Others give credit to the “personable” Charlie Collier, CEO of Fox Entertainment, with another marketer noting, “Charlie did a great job.” And Fox NFL Sunday co-host Terry Bradshaw’s self-described “offensive comments” onstage about Masked Singer judges Ken Jeong and Robin Thicke (which he later apologized for)—on the heels of a similarly “unfiltered” Fox Sports upfronts road show appearance earlier this year that “a lot of people weren’t comfortable with,” according to one attendee—left several buyers hoping that he doesn’t return next year.
Is Disney’s presentation over yet?
One thing everyone agreed on: at 2 hours and 19 minutes, Disney’s first upfront was far too long. “It was way too much. I don’t need a half-hour on Freeform. I barely understand the network as it is, and they only made it more confusing,” said one. Added another, “The fact that it was 90 minutes before they got to ABC prime, which is the whole reason that people are there, was shocking.” A third buyer noted, “There’s a saying: ‘Strategy is sacrifice.’ They should have sacrificed some things to make it a tighter presentation.” One thing that should have been cut: John Mayer’s concluding two-song performance. “I love John Mayer,” said a buyer, “but I just wanted to get the hell out of there.”
WarnerMedia: Upstaged by a rodent
Donna Speciale’s pitch was upstaged by a mouse scurrying around the Hulu Theater at MSG—a disturbance that elicited screams (“I thought someone was having a heart attack,” said one buyer) and sent more than one creeped-out client fleeing the auditorium midpresentation. “That’s what most people were talking about afterwards,” said one buyer, instead of Speciale’s “provocative” call for clients to embrace her company’s attribution offering. Marketers also questioned why AT&T’s Xandr chose to hold its own upfront presentation a day earlier instead of partnering with its new corporate sibling, with one predicting the merger of the two events next year.
No Moonves, no problem
Several buyers credited CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl for smoothly navigating the first post-Les Moonves upfront in two decades. He received kudos for a commitment to diversity in programming that had long been absent from the network, sharing the stage with scheduling chief Noriko Kelley (“I loved that they gave someone else their due, instead of the same people taking credit all the time”) and thanking his team at the end. “Because before that, it was always Les Moonves’ show, and nobody was to be thanked,” said a buyer. Marveled another, “I thought their slate of shows was the best I saw that week.” That said, buyers wish CBS would ditch its upfront focus on the scheduling grid, “which is a pretty antiquated construct in a world where the vast majority of content is being viewed on one’s own time.”
Once again, upfronts week won’t change any media plans
As always, none of the buyers who spoke with Adweek expected to shift their media plans as a result of what they saw during upfronts week. “It provides you better comfort and reassurance in where you intend to invest your money. But there’s nothing I would shift because I don’t feel like there’s a strong enough slate,” said one. Given all the meetings now held with publishers prior to upfronts (including “the pre-upfronts and the pre-pre-upfronts”), where much of this development is shared and strategies are formed, and the fact that millions are spent on each upfronts week event and party, “one has to wonder, would that be better served in some other way?” asked another buyer. But a third disagreed: “Although it’s a long week, it was not a waste of time. I left there inspired and hopeful for where we can invest our money.”