During the annual broadcast upfronts last week, most of the networks picked up right where they left off last year: reasserting their dominance by repeatedly pummeling digital advertising, especially in light of advertisers’ renewed concerns about online placement in offensive environments on platforms like YouTube. “Promising brand safety is a really low bar, and some companies can’t even do that,” said NBCUniversal’s ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino, setting the tone for the week, while newly promoted Fox ad sales chief Joe Marchese declared, “The subprime advertising market is dragging us all down.” Some networks were able to tout breakout freshman successes like NBC’s This Is Us and CBS’ Bull, but they all attempted to convince wary buyers to devote even more of their advertising budgets to networks that continue to lose live linear viewers. Their message: even as ratings are falling, “TV is the most effective advertising medium ever,” Yaccarino said. “We know it, you know it and our friends in Silicon Valley know it.” But as the networks plied buyers with booze and food, and dazzled them with performances from the likes of Jennifer Hudson and the Backstreet Boys in hopes of increasing their upfront take, several new trends emerged from broadcast upfront week.
Revival of the fittest
After The X-Files’ return was such a big success last season (the show will be back again next year), other networks are rushing to revive their old hits, with the original casts. NBC is bringing back Will & Grace—whose cast immediately resumed performing musical numbers for upfront audiences—while ABC reunited the Roseanne cast to announce that sitcom’s return. Add in reboots of Dynasty, S.W.A.T. and American Idol (see below) and buyers were feeling some serious déjà vu. “This is like your own personal Groundhog Day!” Late Late Show host James Corden told them. “Can’t we just play the tape from 2002?”
Idol, or idle?
ABC is bringing back American Idol—which just ended last season—a decision that was questioned all week by its rivals, each of whom had considered making a deal themselves. Fox, which aired it for 15 seasons, and NBC both said their research indicated audiences didn’t want Idol back (Fox chief Dana Walden had offered to revive it in 2020), while CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, who told buyers the show was “dated,” said “the economics just made absolutely no sense for us.” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey, however, insisted it is “the perfect time” to revive the show, whose “heartfelt, uplifting stories of people who make their dreams come true” is right in ABC’s “sweet spot.”
This time last year, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert was flailing on CBS, and Colbert’s upfront routine with buyers (he was slipped in while the big spotlight was on James Corden) was also a big dud. But the resurgent host—riding a 15-week winning streak in total viewers, which began shortly after President Trump’s inauguration—won back buyers and cemented his comeback with a spirited song-and-dance routine and plenty of hilarious jabs at Trump. (“You will learn about our exciting lineup, unless Trump has already leaked it to Russia.”) Said an only half-joking Moonves, “If you think that I love Stephen more now just because he’s No. 1, you’re right!”
Prime time sidelined
As same-day ratings continue to decline in prime time, networks are shining a bigger upfront spotlight on other lucrative areas of their companies. This year, Fox saved its new comedies and dreams for last to talk up the robust audiences served by Fox Sports, while one of CBS’ biggest highlights was unveiling the first trailer for Star Trek: Discovery, which will air on its CBS All Access streaming service, not CBS. NBCUniversal, which had already shrunk NBC’s upfront role after combining its entire portfolio into a single event last year, devoted one of its presentation’s biggest moments to introducing its high-profile NBC News addition, Megyn Kelly, to buyers.
The networks were obsessed with time-travel last year, but only one of those four shows made it to Season 2 (and even that one, Timeless, was briefly canceled). This year, they switched to a new genre du jour: military dramas. David Boreanaz oversees an elite Navy Seals squad in Seal Team on CBS, The CW’s Valor spotlights Army helicopter pilots (though president Mark Pedowitz said he’s been trying to launch a military show since arriving at The CW six years ago), and NBC focuses on a special ops team with The Brave. “As we look to the world becoming more fraught with tension, it could feel like a bit of a welcome show,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt.