Inside the Most Disruptive Upfronts Week in a Decade

From Disney to Fox to WarnerMedia, most presenters have undergone a drastic overhaul since last year

Ad chiefs Marianne Gambelli, Donna Speciale and Rita Ferro Courtesy of FOX, WarnerMedia, and ABC
Headshot of Jason Lynch

For the past decade, upfronts week has had the same rhythm to it: While each network’s slate of new shows changed, buyers still pretty much knew what to expect at every presentation. But not this time: After a wild year of mergers, spinoffs and #MeToo-related exits, the majority of the companies involved in upfront week will look—and sound—completely different than when buyers assembled in New York last May.

Monday afternoon includes the slimmed-down and spun-off Fox Corp., featuring the assets that weren’t part of the Disney-Fox merger. A day later, the bulked-up Disney will hold its first combined upfront, including ESPN, which used to throw its own event hours earlier. Wednesday morning will feature WarnerMedia, the company (and upfront) formerly known as Turner, prior to its merger with AT&T, while that afternoon, CBS will hold its first upfront in two decades without former CEO Les Moonves at the helm. Said David Campanelli, co-chief investment officer, Horizon Media, “This is definitely the biggest single-year change” since NBC returned to upfront week in 2010 following its ill-advised two-year “InFront” experiment.

As a result, buyers find themselves unsure of exactly what awaits them during upfront week. When asked whether Fox’s Monday event will be along the lines of what attendees are accustomed to or something completely different, Marianne Gambelli—named president of ad sales for Fox Corp. in October—said, “We’re going to try to do a little bit of both,” adding, “we’re going to approach it more holistically, and make it more interconnected.”

Donna Speciale, president of WarnerMedia ad sales, used similar phrasing to describe her company’s first upfront event under its new owner. “You’re going to see a much more holistic approach to content, and we’re not going to necessarily go network by network,” she said. “We’re going to talk about the breadth of the portfolio from a holistic content perspective, which is a little different than previous years.”

Rita Ferro said she had been planning to hold a combined upfront since she was named president of Disney advertising sales in September, adding ESPN to her portfolio as well as new Fox assets like FX and National Geographic following the Disney-Fox merger in March. “We knew that advertisers would appreciate forgoing the [ESPN] event in the morning and having one event with the best of the Walt Disney Company on one stage,” she said. “Frankly, it’s been what they’ve been asking us for, for years.”

But expanded companies often also lead to inflated upfront presentations, which has buyers wary of information overload. “It’s good to see it all in one place, to understand everything the portfolio has to offer,” said Campanelli. “But it’s a lot, and then you walk away like, ‘I can’t remember all of it, because there’s just so much to take in.’”

That’s why both Ferro and Speciale vow they’ll keep their enlarged companies’ respective events reined in. “Our goal is to try to keep it condensed, and a bit shorter,” said Speciale. Ferro, meanwhile, is hoping to cap Disney’s upfront at 90 minutes (don’t worry: there will still be time for Jimmy Kimmel’s annual upfront roast, which is often the week’s highlight). “We have given guidance to our brand partners that this is to show the best of the best,” Ferro said of the event. “I’m super-sensitive to the notion of people feeling overwhelmed.” After all, if the presentation drags on with too many sizzle reels, said Ferro, “at some point you’re like, ‘I can’t stand it anymore! End the torture!’”

During upfronts week, presenters ultimately need to focus less on impressing buyers, who interact with their sales teams regularly, and more on wowing their clients, many of whom will be getting their first up-close look at the new and expanded companies. “For them, this is one of the few times, and certainly the biggest opportunity, where they get exposure to what’s happening at these networks,” said Campanelli. While buyers don’t change budgets based on the quality of an upfront presentation, “at the end of the day, it’s the client’s money, and at least part of [their spend is based on] the impression they get from their interactions with the networks.”

This story first appeared in the May 13, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
Publish date: May 12, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT