The Most—and Least—Surprising Moments From Tuesday’s Upfront Events

ABC says less is more, but its parent company didn’t get the message

ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke is putting an end to double-digit series orders.
Walt Disney Television/Pawel Kaminski

We’re now halfway through upfronts week, though Disney’s combined presentation on Tuesday was so long that some buyers probably feel like the finish line should already be in sight. Before you head over to the WarnerMedia and CBS presentations today, relive the most—and least—surprising moments from Disney’s upfront event and press conference on Tuesday. (If you missed our analysis of Monday’s events, you can find it here.)

MOST SURPRISING

ABC’s about-face on new series orders

Each year during upfronts week, ABC can always be counted on to order several more new shows than any of its broadcast competitors. However, new ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke told reporters Tuesday morning that she has pulled the plug on that approach.

“Last year, ABC launched seven new shows in the fall and four at midseason, which I felt was just too many. Too many messages to get out there, and too much for consumers to be able to try to focus on,” she explained. Instead, less is more when it comes to freshman orders, as the network shifts to “only launching the few [shows] that we think can break through” and focusing more marketing dollars on nurturing long-running shows.

It’s one of the strongest indications yet that Burke is taking a different approach to the broadcast schedule, and breaking the familiar cycle of canceling a show with so-so ratings in hopes of finding something more popular, only to have that new series fare even worse than its predecessor. And in a time where it’s harder than to try and cultivate one hit show, much less 11 of them, her less-is-more approach to new series orders should yield long-term benefits for the network.

Disney upstages itself

Disney managed to upstage its own upfront press conference Tuesday morning by announcing it was assuming full operational control over Hulu from Comcast, and could buy the streaming service outright by 2024. The TV reporters in attendance scrambled to write up the news, largely ignoring ESPN’s evp of Connor Schell, as he began sharing his network’s upfront messaging.

Given how vital the day was to spotlighting the future of Disney’s expanded TV portfolio, the timing couldn’t have been worse, as the Hulu news pulled focus from the company’s upfront pitch. So instead of delving into Disney’s new networks as should have been the case, buyers and reporters alike were instead preoccupied with how Hulu will be shoehorned into the company’s strategy.

Tiffany Haddish heads to broadcast

Landing a big movie star on broadcast TV is still a big coup, which is why NBC made waves on Sunday when it said that Melissa McCarthy would become its new Little Big Shots host. But ABC’s surprise news that it had signed Tiffany Haddish to host and executive produce a revival of Kids Say the Darndest Things is even more of a shocker, given Haddish’s rising star status and robust film schedule.

Burke said that Haddish had topped the list of dream talent she’d hope to lure to ABC, and the new chief pulled off the feat in less than six months on the job. While Haddish wasn’t at the event, she charmed buyers in a video segment about her new gig: “That’s right, I said ‘Darndest.’ I’m a white man from the ‘50s now!”

In an upfront week largely devoid of big names (Rob Lowe’s 9-1-1 spinoff for Fox is a rare exception), the Haddish news was huge.

Think before you (joke about a) tweet

Another upfront, another controversial tweet from an ABC star. Last year, Disney-ABC executives joked onstage, multiple times, about Roseanne Barr’s Twitter feed, ironically firing her and pulling the plug on her show two weeks later for that very same reason. This year, it was Constance Wu’s turn in the social media spotlight, as Karey Burke and Jimmy Kimmel joked about her controversial tweetstorm on Friday in response to the news that Fresh Off the Boat had been renewed, to her dismay. (“Only on ABC is getting your show picked up the worst thing that can happen to you,” said Kimmel.)

The network was right to address the controversy onstage in some way, but putting Wu’s tweet onscreen, echoing how the company had done with Barr a year earlier, seemed to be tempting fate, given how Barr’s story ended last year.

Kimmel makes time stand still

Yes, Kimmel’s monologue killed as always, which is to be expected (here are his funniest and most withering upfront jokes). But what was most impressive about his performance this year was the mere anticipation of his upfronts roast was enough to keep the David Geffen Hall attendees from losing focus, even as the event dragged on past the two-hour mark. That Kimmel lived up to lofty expectations, and still managed to crack up an audience that had been sitting for two hours, is yet another testament to his upfront prowess—and explains why ABC wisely extended his contract earlier in the day for another three years.

LEAST SURPRISING

Disney’s growing pains

Yes, Disney’s presentation took two hours and 19 minutes—far longer than any upfront event should be—even though Rita Ferro had been hoping to wrap things up in 90 minutes flat. However, Ferro might have been the only one who thought the company had a chance of pulling that off. As anyone who attended NBCUniversal’s first combined upfront presentation three years would agree, that company also had its share of growing pains as it figured out how to best present its content from across its entire portfolio. And it took a couple years of tweaking before that company cracked the code. Disney has a long way to go, but there’s little doubt that they’ll refine—and hopefully, trim down—the presentation as a result of this year’s learnings.

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