NBCUniversal Asserts Its Dominance Over Digital Video Players

Holds 'biggest upfront that has ever existed'

First things first: NBCUniversal did indeed follow through with its repeated promises to pull off its first combined upfront presentation—rolling together two broadcast networks, 15 cable networks and all of its digital properties—in under two hours. When the confetti cannons went off to bring the Radio City Music Hall event to a close, the entire presentation clocked in at an hour and 53 minutes.

By that measure, the upfront event was success. It was also a dizzying blur of sizzle reels and celebs that made one NBCU network indistinguishable from the next, which was part of the reason the company brought all of its properties together to create "the biggest upfront that has ever existed," said Steve Burke, NBCUniversal's president and CEO, making a rare appearance on an upfront stage.

Burke explained that while the company has previously held as many as eight upfront events in a single year, "we manage the company as one company," so it made sense to start pitching buyers the same way. "Today's upfront combines the strongest broadcaster and the strongest cable company," Burke said.

Jimmy Fallon kicked it off with an opening musical number that spoofed Broadway sensation Hamilton (which NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt is an investor in). "At least we can say we're the network that fired Donald Trump!" were among the lyrics.

Instead of network by network, night by night, the company touted its portfolio "by fanbase."

"We want you to see entire portfolio through the eyes of our audiences" and experience the shows like they do, said Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships. (That was why NBC execs held an upfront conference call with reporters Sunday for the first time in several years.)

Before the event, Yaccarino insisted to Adweek that combining the NBC, Telemundo and NBCUniversal Cable upfront "really has nothing to do with a money-saving exercise." The company clearly spent truckloads of money to assemble nearly 150 of its stars, including Jennifer Lopez (whose NBC drama Shades of Blue will return for Season 2), Mariah Carey (who arrived on a throne, Cleopatra-style, to promote her E! reality series, Mariah's World) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is taking over for Donald Trump as the host of The New Celebrity Apprentice, due in midseason). There was also an elaborate dance number themed to the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio with dancers and drummers scattered throughout the theater.

But underneath all the glitz was a pointed message. Yaccarino pushed back against the claims from various digital video players during the NewFronts, claiming that "the average American spends 7 times as many hours watching television as they do on Facebook" and watches television 15 times as much as YouTube, she said. "I don't care what those Silicon Valley guys say. There is no algorithm for heart-pumping, blood-racing, breath-holding, premium content."

And with the company's Buzzfeed and Vox Media deals, "we are busting through those walls that divide linear and digital," she added.

Yaccarino also took a shot at Nielsen, saying "and really, who needs C3 when you have ATP, our audience targeting platform," said Yaccarino, who will offer guarantees on those data metrics for the first time. "We cannot wait for the industry to catch up to consumer behavior, the way our audiences consume our content." She added, "I don't run a measurement company, and I don't run a research company. But I'm happy to do their jobs for them."

Much of the event presented NBCU's shows in what seemed like haphazard "pockets," including  Rule Breakers (NBC's The Blacklist and Blindspot, and USA's Mr. Robot, which debuted its Season 2 trailer), Laugh Out Loud (NBC's new comedies The Good Place, Great News and Trial & Error), Buzzworthy (Chrisley Knows Best, Real Housewives), Dreamers (Syfy's The Magicians, USA's Colony), Badasses (USA's Suits, Law & Order: SVU, Shades of Blue), Champions (The New Celebrity Apprentice, Bravo's Top Chef, CNBC's The Profit) and Fierce (Bravo's Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, USA's upcoming Queen of the South). Many of those shows, however, would have been suitable for multiple categories. NBC's news and sports divisions also had their moment in the spotlight.

The company squeezed in an impressive number of shows, with so many sizzle reels for so many different properties that few of them were able to stand out from the crowd. In the end, NBC's midseason comedy Trial & Error (a mockumentary version of a true crime series like Making a Murderer or The Staircase) and USA's Shooter (based on the Mark Wahlberg film, with Ryan Phillippe taking over the lead role), seemed to connect with the audience.

Greenblatt, who is usually the central figure at the annual Radio City upfront event, didn't even show up on stage until an hour in, where he spoke briefly about the virtues of live television (17,000 hours last year alone, he said) before disappearing backstage. NBCUniversal Cable chairman Bonnie Hammer, who played a similar role in the NBCUniversal Cable upfronts, made only a brief appearance in the event's final minutes.

The event's real MVP might have been Seth Meyers, who did what others like Miley Cyrus had failed to do during the presentation: energize the crowd with a string of jokes. He talked about how lucky he was to follow Jimmy Fallon: "If had I to follow The Tonight Show Starring Linda Yaccarino and the Future of Branded Content, I'd have to think it would hurt my ratings," he said, adding, "watching sizzle reels at the upfronts is like meeting your brother's new girlfriend at Thanksgiving: she seems great… but chances are she won't be around next fall."

Thanks to Meyers, the NBCUniversal upfront audience excited Radio City in high spirits, which ultimately is the most the company could have asked for from its first combined event.