ABC Plays It Safe at Its Upfront, but Jimmy Kimmel Takes No Prisoners

Network makes few moves but leaves big impression

After unveiling a 2015-2016 schedule that looked remarkably similar to this season's, ABC's upfront presentation today lacked any big surprises.

But more of the same was just what the advertisers and media buyers assembled at New York's Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center wanted to hear because that also meant the return of Jimmy Kimmel's annual upfront roast. 

Ben Sherwood, co-chairman, Disney Media Networks, and president, Disney-ABC Television Group, was introduced by How to Get Away With Murder star Viola Davis ("I like to call him Big Ben," she said). While Sherwood claimed ABC wouldn't be parsing stats to claim victory in made-up categories, he declared the network "No. 1 in entertainment programming" (by which he meant programming that doesn't include sports, which NBC, Fox and CBS have in abundance) among adults 18-49.

In the actual 18-49 stats advertisers pay attention to, however, ABC is in third place, up from last year's fourth place showing. "ABC has got the momentum, and we like where we're going," Sherwood said.

Geri Wang, president, ABC sales, noted that the network's audience is up 7 percent this season among adults 18-49 and revealed new initiatives "for data, addressability and transparency." ABC Unified Insights is a Web dashboard that offers deep analytics at the click of a button, giving advertisers access to audience insights on ABCAllAccess.com.

ABC is "taking the first step toward addressable advertising" on the linear side, said Wang, targeting ads based on consumer attributes and allowing advertisers to "leverage data to optimize your ABC schedule beyond traditional demographics."

Wang also had a digital announcement: "For the first time ever, you can plan, buy and deliver against your audience segment on an impression-by-impression basis" across a portfolio that includes ABC, ABC Family, Disney Media and ESPN Maker Studios.

"It's a data match made in heaven," said Wang. "We're confident that the more you know about ABC, the better it is for both of us."

Paul Lee, president, ABC Entertainment, reiterated many of the same points he made to reporters Tuesday morning, noting that "to be a great destination, you have to be a great brand" and playing up ABC's strides with diverse programming. (He proclaimed the network is No. 1 in what it calls "brand halo," perhaps not hearing Sherwood's earlier promises about shying away from seemingly meaningless stats.)

Lee had fewer moves to sell advertisers on than his Fox and NBC counterparts at Monday's upfronts, given the stability of his schedule. Of the new trailers he screened—all of which can be found here—the audience seemed to be most receptive to new comedy Dr. Ken, starring Ken Jeong, and midseason dramas The Catch (Shonda Rhimes' fourth ABC show) and The Family.

Lee said that midseason drama Wicked City was "our highest testing pilot of the year with millennials," adding after the creepy trailer aired, "Millennials, right? What's wrong with those guys?"

Lee made sure to give ABC News a shoutout, thanking Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, Diane Sawyer and David Muir, which made NBC's omission of its news division at Monday's upfront all the more glaring.

As usual, the highlight of ABC's upfront—and the entire broadcast week in general—was Jimmy Kimmel's annual roast of the network and its competitors. Among this year's best lines:

  • "I talked to Bob Iger, and he said, because we have The Avengers and Star Wars this year, 'We don't need money from you guys.'"
  • He noted that NBC claimed it was No. 1 yesterday and ABC was making the same claim today, "which means one of the networks is lying to you, and I'm here to tell you that it's us."
  • "We have diversity at every level of our organization, except The Bachelor—we're gonna keep that one white."
  • "In an interview with Adweek last month, Paul Lee said that ABC's credit was only partially due to Shonda [Rhimes], which is kind of like saying the success of Thriller is only partially due to Michael Jackson."
  • "Poor Fox, but they do have Empire. Did they mention that at their presentation?"
  • "American Idol felt like one of those things that would be around forever—like herpes."

Overall, it was a stronger and more memorable routine than usual—just like ABC's upfront.