The Most—and Least—Surprising Moments From Monday’s Upfront Events

Including Brian Williams’ unexpected return and Terry Bradshaw’s ‘offensive comments’

Monday marked Brian Williams' first NBCUniversal upfront appearance since his 2015 suspension. - Credit by Charles Sykes/NBCUniversa
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Monday of upfronts week is in the books, with both NBCUniversal and Fox Corp. holding their events. And while buyers heard many familiar pitches and promises from execs and talents, both companies also had a few unexpected tricks up their sleeves. Here were the most—and least—surprising moments from those two presentations.

MOST SURPRISING

Brian Williams: back in NBCU’s good graces

The most surprising guest on the Radio City Music Hall stage wasn’t the 13 female Olympic medalists who were greeted with a standing ovation, but rather MSNBC’s Brian Williams, who appeared alongside NBC News personalities like Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt and Chuck Todd to talk about their division’s success over the past year. (“Remember when we said the last election would be the most consequential in a decade?” said Williams. “We were right.”)

It was Williams’ first appearance on a NBCUniversal upfront stage since he was booted from the NBC Nightly News and given a six-month suspension from the network in February 2015 for telling and re-telling his made-up story about being in a helicopter that came under fire during his coverage of the Iraq War in 2003.

Williams now hosts the No. 1 cable news program in the 11 p.m. hour among total viewers, but the company had not fully, and publicly, embraced him until Monday’s upfront. NBCU must have assumed that given the other infamous NBC News personalities the company has trotted out at its upfront in recent years—namely, Matt Lauer and Megyn Kelly—Williams’s past suddenly doesn’t look so bad in comparison.

Full stream ahead

One of NBCUniversal’s biggest upfront focuses was on a platform that relatively little is known about: the ad-supported streaming service launching “by mid-next year,” according to ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino, who bookended the presentation with references to the OTT platform, which she called “the largest initiative in our company’s history.”

It’s unusual for a company to spend so much time on an upfront offering that doesn’t have a name, or any specifics about its original or library content offerings, but NBCU seemed undaunted by the lack of information about the service.

“Other companies are pushing advertisers out, we are bringing them back in,” said Yaccarino, adding, “The shows that people love the most and stream the most are coming home,” which seemed to be the clearest indication yet that The Office, which was produced by NBCUniversal and was Netflix’s most-streamed show last year, will be migrating to the new streaming service.

Fox’s new energy source

While much of the early focus was on what Fox Corp.’s first upfront would look like, and how often The Masked Singer would be referenced (the answer: not quite as much as expected), the event’s real scene-stealer turned out to be new Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier, who brought an executive energy and genuine enthusiasm to the Fox upfront that had been missing for several years.

He swapped questions and quips with talent onstage throughout the afternoon, and also participated in a fun mock halftime interview backstage with Fox Sports’ Erin Andrews. (Andrews: “How do you plan on getting this back on track?” Collier: “We’re just going to take it one cliché at a time.”)

It was a rare instance of Fox smartly utilizing its Fox Sports talent during an upfront (for the more traditional approach, keep reading).

Déjà vu

Given that NBCUniversal’s portfolio is substantial and Fox has been slimmed down, it was surprising to see how much was replicated in both presentations, including appearances from Amy Poehler (who has Making It on NBC, and new animated comedy Duncanville on Fox) and John Cena (who helped Jimmy Fallon spoof Apple’s iconic 1984 ad as part of NBCU’s opening video, and was onstage at Fox’s event to welcome WWE’s SmackDown Live to that network).

Plus there were serious pyrotechnics at both events: during an NBCUniversal musical performance and WWE’s SmackDown Live for Fox. For two companies that were trying to stress to advertisers how unique they each were, NBCUniversal and Fox certainly seemed to be on the same page.

LEAST SURPRISING

The war on Facebook continues

As usual, the companies saved their biggest criticisms and barbs for tech platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Amazon, instead of their fellow broadcasters.

“There is no algorithm that could imagine or create all of that,” Yaccarino said, talking about her company’s upfront event. “Vote with your budgets, and invest in content that’s always safe.”

Collier, meanwhile, pointed out that “the most sophisticated, data-driven companies, like Amazon and Facebook … still invest the most significant portion of their advertising dollars on broadcast.” He added, “It’s because broadcast works. They have all the data, and this is the choice they’re making.”

More foul behavior from Fox Sports

While some upfront staples are eagerly awaited each year, like Jimmy Kimmel’s upfront roast, others are dreaded, like the annual appearance from Fox’s NFL team, which always manages to stay on stage too long and do something either embarrassing or downright offensive in front of buyers.

Terry Bradshaw kept the infamous streak going when he complained that “Alan Thicke” and “that little short guy from Japan” voted him off The Masked Singer, on which he was briefly a contestant earlier this year. The inappropriate (and also inaccurate) remark was a reference to Masked Singer judges Robin Thicke (the late Alan’s son) and Detroit-born Korean-American Ken Jeong. Bradshaw apologized late Monday for his “offensive comments,” but the damage has already been done, and Fox needs to stop automatically penciling him and his colleagues into every upfront event.


@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.