Here’s What Ad Buyers Really Thought About Upfronts Week 2019

Their 10 biggest takeaways as this year’s talks start up

Buyers liked that CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl shared the upfront stage with scheduler Noriko Kelley. John P. Filo/CBS
Headshot of Jason Lynch

The most disruptive upfronts week in a decade, packed with presentations from newly merged and spun-off companies, has come to an end. After a week of hearing the major media companies’ pitches about the 2019-20 TV season, the buyers are ready to have their say. As they kicked off this year’s upfront talks, several of them spoke with Adweek (anonymously) to candidly share their 10 biggest takeaways from the packed week of events and parties—everything from the Mouse House’s problem to … an actual mouse problem.

Ratings? What ratings?

NBCUniversal was one of two presentations that featured pyrotechnics.
Charles Sykes/NBCUniversal

Instead of trying to spin their plummeting linear ratings, as is usually the case, several networks just ignored the elephant in the room altogether, focusing instead on what one buyer termed “peripheral things” like new data conversations or flashy production values (both NBCUniversal and Fox incorporated pyrotechnics into their events). “It was a little bit like, don’t pay attention to the base business. Look at all the things on the periphery and how exciting all that stuff is!” said the buyer. “But there’s nothing that will mask the fact that we have been on a dramatic slide over the past four or five years—and the conversation must change.”

The next This Is Us remains elusive

As buyers bid farewell to the casts of three long-running programs (Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory and Supernatural) during upfronts, they didn’t see anything from the new crop of shows that would likely take their places, or become the next freshman breakout à la This Is Us. “It’s the same-old same-old,” said a buyer. “I don’t think there’s anything here that’s going to help our ratings.” However, another said, “It was actually the best development season I’ve seen in a while. I don’t know if there’s anything I love—but there’s potential.”

Advanced targeting: All talk, no outcomes?

Many companies touted their advanced targeting offerings, but marketers said some of them don’t live up to the hype. “We’ve been having a lot of these conversations with the networks already, and I don’t know that their talk matches what their actual capabilities are,” said one. “Our clients are into it, but the actual legwork required to get those deals done is still in its beginning stages.” Another said that while they are “pleased” with the advancements in technology and data, “it’s still unclear” how advertisers and agencies can “figure out a way to monetize it and aggregate the users and the impressions to keep TV a brand awareness model, and not drive it to the bottom of the funnel.” A third was upset with one company for not showcasing the company’s successful data partnership with their client: “We were the first with them—and they barely talked about it!”

OTT details are MIA

NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia emphasized their upcoming streaming services, but as buyers noted, they didn’t share any new details. “It’s frustrating,” said one buyer. “Do it when you actually have a story to tell!” The lack of clarity about the new OTT offerings is “going to make it hard to evaluate,” said another. “It doesn’t seem like that’s going to play a big role in this year’s upfront.”

Mixed messages from NBCUniversal

Linda Yaccarino made two appearances during NBCUniversal's event.
Virginia Sherwood/NBCUniversal

NBCUniversal’s Linda Yaccarino said she is passing the upfronts baton to lieutenants Mark Marshall and Laura Molen this year, but buyers aren’t convinced, especially after she seemingly spent more time onstage this presentation than she had in several years. “If you’re passing the baton, why don’t you let them do it?” asked one. “There were some conversations around her needing to be significantly involved still,” said one buyer, who added that Marshall and Molen’s brief appearance onstage compared to Yaccarino’s “speaks volumes” about the state of play. As Yaccarino expands her purview and tries to relinquish some day-to-day duties to Marshall and Molen, “the market is saying, ‘No, you can’t.’” (UPDATE: NBCUniversal reiterated to Adweek that Marshall and Molen will indeed be taking over upfront duties from Yaccarino.)

Fox Corp. is a work in progress

Charlie Collier made his upfront debut as Fox Entertainment CEO.
Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup/Fox

This story first appeared in the May 27, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.