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The Five Biggest Narratives of Upfronts 2017

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Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

From ‘American Idol’ and Donald Trump, THR rounds up the biggest takeaways from the broadcast network’s $9 billion cash grab.

The fall schedules have been unveiled and new trailers are collecting views that the broadcast networks hope will turn into ad dollars. A week of glitzy upfront presentations from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW has now wrapped, leaving ad buyers to digest the numerous stats and announcements as they determine where to spend an anticipated $9 billion.

Here, The Hollywood Reporter breaks down the biggest narratives to come out of the upfronts as the broadcast networks hope some of their 39 new shows have what it takes to become next season’s This Is Us.

All About Idol 

Everybody had something to say about American Idol but the network that just bought it. Sure, ABC used its presentation to confirm that Katy Perry would join its 2018 revival as judge, but that was the extent of the very brief talking points. The same cannot be said of other Big Four brass. First, NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt made it clear that his network was Idol producer FremantleMedia’s initial ask for the reboot. “We’re happy to say they come to us first,” he told reporters May 14. Fox’s Dana Walden shared her take the next day. “We spent $25 million sending the message that it was the farewell season,” she said, insisting that bringing it back so soon would be “extremely fraudulent.” CBS Corp’s Leslie Moonves got the most snarky, cracking fun at Idol during his May 17 presentation and implying to reporters that ABC would be taking a hit with the investment. “We were offered American Idol,” he told press earlier that morning. “The price is so expensive, you need a 35 share to break even. I’m not trying to knock ABC. The economics made no sense for us, and for them it did.” It’s a singing competition, guys. Not a pissing match.

Anti-Digital Agenda

With more choices than ever, the broadcast networks presented a united front against a shared enemy: digital. Nearly all of the Big Four stressed the accountability and safety that comes with broadcast vs. digital-only platforms. Fox president of advertising revenue Joe Marchese, on the job less than a week, fired shots at Facebook and YouTube. NBCUniversal ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino preached brand safety by unspooling a video clip featuring a “your ad here” bug over two TV-MA clips of a couple having sex. CBS ad sales chief Jo Ann Ross skipped the charts and focused instead on broadcast’s quality environment. “Data plus eyeballs is a combination that works — and we’re talking human eyeballs, by the way,” she asserted. “Real people watching your commercials with no fraud.”

Ownership Matters

In the week leading up to the broadcast networks, one trend became impossible to ignore: the Big Four broadcast networks were almost exclusively buying from their studio counterparts. While narrowing its pilot crop, NBC eliminated every comedy and drama that wasn’t produced in-house at Universal Television. Fox followed suit as every single one of their new 2017-18 series are 100 percent owned by their vertically aligned studio. Of the few outside buys, many — especially from independent studios Sony Pictures Television and Warner Bros. Television — had to be co-productions as nets insisted on owning at least a sliver of their new fall offerings. The new model applied to several renewals, too: CBS axed WBTV’s 2 Broke Girls; ABC cut ties with 20th TV’s Last Man Standing (and no, it wasn’t because of star Tim Allen’s political affiliation); and NBC canceled Sony TV’s Timeless before, well, going back and reversing its decision — and earning an ownership stake in the process. (WBTV also gave up a piece of Blindspot to score another season of the bubble drama.)   

Reboots and Spinoffs, Oh My 

As ad dollars dwindle and ownership helps bolster revenue streams from international sales, stacking rights and SVOD deals, the Big Four are relying on familiar and proven dramas and comedies to cut through a scripted space that features more than 450 originals. ABC’s Channing Dungey went straight to series on a spinoff of Grey’s Anatomy, her network’s top drama. That joined the Roseanne revival that was announced hours before the original cast was (awkwardly) trotted out on stage. (The network also picked up spinoffs of Dancing With the Stars and The Bachelor, too.) NBC looked to Will and Grace to revive its “Must-See TV” marketing campaign on Thursdays. CBS wowed the room with a spinoff of TV’s top comedy as Big Bang Theory prequel Young Sheldon also impressed rival studio execs. Over at The CW, their modern Dynasty revival also was a hit in the room.

And Yes, Donald Trump 

The embattled president, once an upfront fixture while hosting NBC’s former hit The Apprentice, cast a shadow over the presentations with subtle jabs — ABC showed a patriotic sizzle reel with an immigrant character from Fresh Off the Boat taking the naturalization oath — and aggressive ones. The latter tactic was CBS’ Stephen Colbert. While NBC’s Seth Meyers mocked Trump at the top of the week, Colbert went all in. “At this point, there’s really only one word to describe this president,” he explained to the crowd, “and the FCC has asked me not to use it anymore.” It’s a risky move, considering the advertising and media-buying set tend to be a bit more bipartisan than left-leaning Hollywood, but most cracks at the commander in chief appeared to land well with the crowd. 

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