Kiefer Sutherland’s New Series Gives ABC’s Muted Upfront Pitch an Explosive Finish

Designated Survivor looks like a hit

The key to planning a big event like a broadcast upfront presentation is that if you start big and end big, everything else in between ultimately doesn't matter that much.

That's exactly how ABC's upfront showcase unfolded at New York's David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. The event kicked off with some opening flash (an elaborate song and dance number led by Quantico's Priyanka Chopra, who sang "Uptown Funk," flanked by a bevy of backup dancers and stars from Black-ish and The Goldbergs), and fire, as ABC joined the broadcast pile-on against digital video players. But then, the energy slowly drained out of the room as trailer after trailer played to a lackluster response from buyers. It was as if the room had used up all its energy applauding Fox's trailers the previous afternoon and had no enthusiasm left for what ABC had to offer.

At least until the end, when ABC unspooled what appeared to be the entire first act of Designated Survivor, its new drama airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. in which Kiefer Sutherland learns that he has become president after an attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union wipes out the president, all of Congress and everyone else in line to take over the Oval Office but him.

The footage was thrilling, moving, electric, surprising—adjectives that didn't describe much of what came before it—and was greeted with thunderous applause. In short, it was the best footage screened during upfront presentations this week and seemed like the closest thing to a potential hit buyers have seen. ABC opted not to release the same footage screened during the event, instead going with a more standard trailer:

ABC's head of sales Geri Wang, who hosted the presentation, also made a strong impression as she detailed a new study that she shared with Adweek earlier in the day. The study from Accenture Strategy, which analyzed marketing spend and return on investment over three years, makes a compelling case to advertisers and buyers that digital can't match the long-term ROI benefits of advertising on linear TV and its related platforms.

While NBC and Fox used various ratings metrics to push back against the claims made during the Digital Content NewFronts, ABC's study should hit buyers where it matters most during the upfronts: their budgets. "Spending more on TV drives sales," said Wang. "This study proves that not all media is created equal."

Added Disney-ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood, "TV delivers more value than anything else by far. No matter what anybody says, nothing else even comes close."

Sherwood praised Channing Dungey, noting that today was her three-month anniversary as ABC Entertainment president, saying that "out of the gate, she has been a breath of fresh air." (Sorry, Paul Lee.)

Dungey made a nice first impression at her first upfront presentation, talking about her childhood obsession with television—she used to audiotape shows like Hart to Hart as a kid—and detailing her vision for the network. "The best storytelling comes not from the head but from the heart," she said.

Still, for a network whose upfront theme was how its shows connect with viewers, little of the content sparked a reaction. The response to the comedies was particularly muted, a surprise given that Dungey told reporters this morning that this year's comedy development was "very, very strong."

One standout in the midpresentation malaise was, once again, Jimmy Kimmel's annual upfront roasting of ABC and his competitors. Kimmel, who just extended his contract for three more years through fall 2019, pulled no punches as usual and offered one of the only glimpses of upfront candor. (You can read the highlights here, but my two favorite lines: his description of upfronts as "a TED talk where you leave dumber than when you got here" and his dismissal of advertisers' obsession with millennials, saying, "Are we really going to let these vaping, Snapchatting, music stealing little fuckers determine how we do business? We are? Oh, we are.")

Here are the trailers for the four new comedies: American Housewife and Speechless, which will premiere this fall, and Imaginary Mary and Downward Dog, which will air midseason.

The response was also tempered for the new drama trailers (aside from Designated Survivor, of course): fall dramas Conviction and Notorious, and midseason entries Still Star-Crossed and Time After Time.

If Designated Survivor delivers on the promise of the sensational footage ABC showed today and gives Dungey her first big hit, none of the rest will matter.