Here’s What Ad Buyers Really Thought About Upfronts Week

Their 9 biggest takeaways as this year’s negotiations heat up

NBCUniversal's two-and-a-half hour event, featuring a Jennifer Lopez performance, kicked off upfronts week. Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal
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Another upfronts week packed with big buzzwords and even bigger promises is in the books. Now that the major media companies have had their say about the 2018-19 TV season, it’s the buyers’ turn. Before they dove into this year’s upfront negotiations, several of them reflected (anonymously) on what they really thought about this year’s week of presentations and parties: the good, the bad and the Whiskey Cavalier.

Too. Damn. Long.

Buyers are still recovering from NBCUniversal’s longest upfront event yet. “That’s a hell of a way to kick off the week, two-and-a-half hours at Radio City,” says one. But NBCU wasn’t the only company with a bloated presentation. As another notes, “There were plenty that could have been cut significantly.” Several buyers fondly recalled that just a few years ago, all presentations were completed in an hour; 90 minutes tops: “They were good and tight, and then everyone feels, ‘NBC goes two-and-a-half hours, so we should go two hours.’ And that makes it painful.”

Too much sports, not enough shows

One big cause of the sluggish presentations was the amount of time taken up onstage by overly chatty sports personalities. “I know football is a big part of everyone’s schedule and it’s important, but we know what football is,” says one buyer, who said that Fox’s seemingly endless sports pitch was the week’s most egregious. “It was them up there ad-libbing for 25 minutes. Just show us the [new] shows. That’s what people are there to see.”

Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Michael Strahan ad-libbed at Fox’s event.

Broadcasters are playing it too safe

Several marketers worried that despite all the talk that week about innovative new currencies and ad formats, “on the content side it seems like we’re regressing to bringing back the oldies” with revivals and reboots like Murphy Brown, Last Man Standing, Charmed and Magnum P.I. Notes another, “We’ve all talked about ratings being down and having to shake things up, but I don’t think we saw anything new. The networks are playing it safe, and that’s not what they should be doing.”

JAZ pods fall out of tune

Just before Fox’s upfront, buyers say, ad sales chief Joe Marchese significantly pared down the company’s plans to roll out “JAZ pods”—60-second ad pods that were set to air during Sunday prime time each week—reportedly due to pushback from network affiliates. “We found ourselves at the last minute telling our clients, ‘They’re not going to say what we were saying in the meeting two weeks ago, when we were explaining all this to you.’ That was an odd situation to be in.” That last-minute switch, scaling back from all Sundays to just three (and adding FX and National Geographic) “took a lot of steam” out of Marchese’s pitch. Says another buyer, “Everybody’s disappointed that something that seemed cutting edge has all of a sudden been taken off the table to a large degree.”

CBS’ legal battle with its parent company won’t upset the upfront

CBS’ lawsuit against parent company National Amusements over control of its future, which it filed just two days before the upfront, threatened to overshadow its annual Carnegie Hall event. Buyers say that even if the skirmish results in the exit of chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves (who received a standing ovation during his appearance), it won’t affect their upfront buys with the network. “It’s a problem for down the road. The slate is pretty set and if they see success, you’re not going to tamper with it,” says one. “Regardless of who’s running the ship, they still want to be successful.”

NBCU’s CFlight metric needs to expand

Buyers applauded the idea, but not the timing, of CFlight, NBCUniversal’s unified ad metric. “It does make sense, but I don’t know that the best way to introduce a new metric is for just one media owner to talk about it, a month before the upfront. We want to see this for everybody,” says one marketer, who pointed out that “it took years” to create the C3 and C7 metric, and “there’s no way this is just going to happen across the board in a couple months’ time.” Still, “it’s a nice step in the right direction,” says another, who adds the networks “need to be able to sell us not a C3 rating and a separate digital schedule and a separate VOD schedule and a separate Hulu schedule. They need to be able to sell us the [whole] thing in totality.”

Jimmy Kimmel killed Whiskey Cavalier—or did he?

Kimmel’s hilarious return to ABC’s upfront stage was a big hit with buyers, but they were divided over whether he permanently damaged the prospects of midseason drama Whiskey Cavalier, whose title and plot the comedian excoriated onstage. “He completely killed the show, and I’m sure [ABC Entertainment president] Channing Dungey wants to kill him,” says one, though others noted that the series “didn’t look any better or worse than a lot of the stuff that’s been presented in that genre in the past.” No matter what buyers think, says another, “the general audience has no idea about [Kimmel’s Whiskey Cavalier roast], so once it premieres, if it does well, I think it will be forgotten.”

Jimmy Kimmel returned for ABC’s presentation.

In the end, upfronts week didn’t change a thing

There wasn’t a consensus on which shows and presentations buyers liked best, but one thing they all agreed on: The week’s events had no significant impact on their upfront strategies. “It’s hard to be too picky as a buyer these days. You want to play with them all, because the margin between success and failure is not particularly high,” says a buyer. These days, “you’re betting on the network more than you are betting on specific shows,” and no one planned any big changes as a result of how the week shook out.

This year’s upfront market should be similar to, or softer than, last year’s

Most media company CEOs have been predicting strong upfronts on their most recent earnings calls, but buyers aren’t biting. “I think it will be a bit softer than last year, looking at overall budgets,” says one. “I don’t see there’s any one place where we’re going to see a flood of dollars than wasn’t there last year.” Several anticipate the market will be similar to last year’s, while one predicts “a long stare-down” with NBCUniversal and Fox over the rate hikes those companies will be seeking to offset their ad load reductions: “As someone once said to me, I’m not going to rush to pay a high increase.”

This story first appeared in the May 28, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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