NBC almost ruined all the fun. While the other broadcast networks celebrated the power and pre-eminence of broadcasting in their upfront presentations this week, NBC chose to downplay its specialness by allowing its many cable networks to share the Radio City Music Hall spotlight. However, in NBC’s defense, i’ll agree it may have saved some cab fares.
NBC aside, the upfronts were a celebration of the oldest TV medium. The networks presented their new shows and grids for the fall with high hopes and much ado. Stars and hyperbole abounded.
Advertisers, agencies, critics and viewers looked over the selections and laid their bets on the winners and losers. It was almost comforting to hear the usual complaints about the sameness of the new offerings and the lack of daring in the choices.
Many affiliates were in town for the festival of sizzle and selling. I’m sure they enjoyed being at center stage in the media world again, even though they will have to pick up the check for much of the programming and hoopla with their reverse comp payments.
Combined, the networks introduced a whopping 42 new series, some of the abbreviated variety — 19 for the fall, and 22 for midseason.
Taken together, the upfronts reinforced the fact that the broadcast networks remain the first stop for mass national advertisers.
Broadcast audiences are fractions of what they were in the 1980s when cable programming really started getting traction, but they are still the biggest fractions. It’s called reach in the trade. Broadcasters have it; the cable networks don’t.
It’s like that old joke about the two guys in the woods facing an angry bear. The first guy says, “Let’s run.” The other says, “We can’t outrun a bear.” The first guy says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you.”
That’s what the broadcasters are doing. They are outrunning all of basic cable and the countless digital outlets with video that rely on advertising.
If only 10 linear general entertainment TV networks survive the digital onslaught, you can safely bet that the Big Four (maybe even the Big Five) will be among them.
The week’s good vibes were not simply manufactured by the promotion departments. They came honestly from the sales departments, which expect upfront sales to rebound significantly from last year. Those expectations are based on demand in the scatter market that has been pushing prices up as much as 20% over last year.
In other words, agencies that shaved their upfront buys last spring and summer because they didn’t like the prices have been regretting it this spring.
We’ll watch closely to see how the sales play out over the next weeks and months.
The upfronts also say a lot about the network strategies.
Like last season, the networks eschewed reality programming, despite the on-going success of several established shows, notably NBC’s The Voice.
That reflects the networks’ overarching interest, which is creating shows that they can sell again and again on every platform in every country of the world — from Amazon to Zaire.
Underscoring the strategy is the networks’ continued unabashed preference for shows that they own or co-own — what the Hollywood trades are calling vertically integrated. Such shows account for about four-fifths of the networks’ schedules.
At a post-upfront investors’ conference yesterday, CBS chief Les Moonves made no bones about it. “A show that’s 100% owned [by CBS] will generally get a better time period and generally will be more important to the network,” he said, according to an account in Deadline Hollywood.
Now back to NBC.
Rather than stage an upfront for NBC, parent NBCU decided to hold a single upfront for all its ad-supported networks. According to reporter Adam Buckman, NBCU gave NBC about the same attention in its two-hour presentation as it did its cable networks — the likes of Syfy, USA Network, Bravo and E!
The event turned into a long string of sizzle reels, one network almost indistinguishable from the next.
NBCU CEO Steve Burke explained that the all-in-one approach would save a buck and everybody’s time.
“We did it because over the last few years, we had eight upfronts. And you think of the amount of time all of us spent — two hours at each upfront, cab rides and everything else — the amount of time and money …. It really made sense to have one unified upfront.”
Of course, there was more to it to that. NBCU sales chief Linda Yaccarino explained: “Why one upfront? It’s because this is how we sell, as one portfolio.”
So, for the sake of efficiency, NBCU decided that it would skip its one opportunity each year to underscore the importance and vitality of its flagship network — the one network in its entire portfolio that people might actually pay for if they had to.
It’s a odd strategy and somewhat insulting, I think, to the affiliates that NBC counts on to deliver its programming to every TV home and cable headend in the country.
Affiliates like Ralph Oakley, Perry Sook and Jordan Wertlieb could not possibly have enjoyed sitting there hearing about the swell new shows that were coming from E! to suck the lifeblood out of their businesses.
It was supposed to be their day.
P.S. The affiliates care most about what the networks air at 10 o’clock (9 o’clock in the case of Fox affiliates) since it’s those shows that can carry viewers into their latenight newscasts.
You would think that with the proliferation of DVRs and VOD such worries be a thing of a the past. But, no. The ABC affiliates have made quite a fuss about their network’s poor performance at 10.
To appease them, ABC zapped Castle and Nashville on Mondays and Wednesdays at 10, respectively, and replaced them with Conviction and Designated Survivor, a new vehicle for Kiefer Sutherland. They moved the returning Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into the late slot on Tuesday.
We’ll have more about the news lead-in programming for you next week.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.