The 5 Buzziest Television Trends That Defined This Year’s Upfronts

From digital disruption to Kiefer Sutherland

The annual broadcast upfronts week has wrapped, as the networks spent four days wooing buyers with their new schedules, lots of impressive-sounding stats (some figures were more accurate than others) and, most importantly, open bars and buffets. And while each company made distinctive pitches in an effort to grab the biggest slice of the upfront pie, several universal themes emerged from the week—and not just that everyone had the same idea to incorporate Hamilton (the Broadway musical was mentioned during four different events and inspired three musical numbers). The biggest trends that emerged: 

Down with digital

While the networks took a few swipes at one another, they each saved their heaviest artillery for digital video companies like Facebook and YouTube, which had just spent the two weeks of NewFronts claiming that more people watch them than broadcast TV. The networks struck back with a vengeance. Toby Byrne, president of advertising sales, Fox Networks Group, slammed what he termed "nonpremium, subprime video," and noted that "the digital metrics game is rigged." ABC hit hardest with a new study from Accenture Strategy that analyzed marketing spend and return on investment over three years, and found that digital can't match the long-term ROI benefits of advertising on linear TV and its related platforms.

TV is the new movies

Even though Limitless, Minority Report and Rush Hour all failed to score Season 2 renewals this year, the networks picked up even more shows—five in all—based on popular movies: Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist (Fox), Taken (NBC), Training Day (CBS) and Frequency (The CW). "If you have awareness that already exists on the shows, it makes the launching and marketing of those shows easier," said Jennifer Salke, NBC Entertainment president. But CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller insisted, "I don't think an IP [intellectual property] title has anything to do with the quality of the show … the show has to stand for itself."

Stuck in time

One subgenre tends to dominate each year's pickups—say, Modern Family clones or shows that go behind the scenes of a TV production. This season, there was a run on shows about time travel (or communication across time), with four of them making the cut: dramas Time After Time (ABC), Timeless (NBC) and Frequency (The CW), and comedy Making History (Fox).

Funny business

CBS, ABC and NBC have each added new comedy nights to their slates, with ABC now airing comedy three nights of the week (Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, for five hours in total each week). ABC's new entertainment president Channing Dungey said that for her first fall schedule she wanted to include more of "what we do well, which is our signature brand of family comedies" (she added American Housewife and Speechless). The other network president newbie, Geller, wanted to bring more multicams back to CBS this year, which led him to tap Kevin Can Wait, Man With a Plan and The Great Indoors. As for NBC, after several years of struggling to find its comedy identity, "we finally feel like we're in a sweet spot," said Salke, as NBC added The Good Place.

King Kiefer

Kiefer Sutherland is back on TV in a big way, as he is involved with two of the best received shows during the upfronts. The actor is executive producing Fox's reboot of his hit series 24, called 24: Legacy, which features a new cast—Fox thinks new lead Corey Hawkins, who steps in for Sutherland, has huge breakout potential—and will debut after Super Bowl LI in February. And he's starring in (and executive producing) what looks to be ABC's strongest series, Designated Survivor, where he plays a cabinet member who becomes president after an attack on the Capitol wipes out every one else in the line of succession. That show, said Dungey, "is perfectly in his sweet spot—and ours."

This story first appeared in the May 23, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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