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As TV Upfronts Go Virtual, Host Jimmy Kimmel Delivers Industry Gallows Humor

Brian Steinberg

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At a moment when many Americans’ rituals and routines have been upended, at least one is staying intact: Jimmy Kimmel’s annual pitch to advertisers.

The coronavirus pandemic effectively scuttled the media industry’s annual week of “upfront” presentations, when TV networks make their pitch for their share of billions of dollars in advance advertising commitments. Kimmel typically holds forth during a Disney showcase at New York’s Lincoln Center, where he hurls barbs at rival TV companies and harangues media buyers to loosen their purse-strings. His monologue is prickly and unsparing; even Disney’s operations are not sacred.

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Kimmel did make outreach to Madison Avenue via a “virtual roadshow” that Disney has brought to various media agencies in recent weeks. And even though the times are more uncertain, the late-night host did not hold back.

“I know that in previous years, many of you felt there was no way that the ABC upfront could possibly have been worse, and to that I say, ‘Welcome to the Disney Virtual Roadshow,'” said Kimmel, who was made to appear as if he were taking the stage in New York. “We call it the road show, because just like the show on PBS, we are also selling antiques.”

Kimmel has been roasting Madison Avenue and the media industry in this fashion for nearly two decades. The humor is lacerating, and on occasion, observers have questioned whether the jokes might be too much. Kimmel spares no one – not Disney management, not rival networks, and not the sponsors who fuel the TV business. “Every year we lie to you, and every year you come back for more,” Kimmel told a crowd in 2009. “You don’t need an upfront. You need therapy.” He has missed the opportunity only once, in 2017, to care for his newborn son. ““I found myself missing being there. I felt a little left out, and it was weird,” Kimmel told Variety that year.

His monologue this year hit all the expected notes. “Our shows have been social distancing themselves from young people for years,” he told the media buyers watching the program.

The comic turned his gaze on his own company, noting recent churn in the Disney executive suite: “We are a mess. We don’t know who our boss is. Kevin Mayer quit us to go work for Chinese identity thieves. Even our executives are leaving us for a younger audience.” And he noted the economic headwinds Disney faces: “You want shrimp? Next year, we’ll give you shrimp. But in the meantime, we need cash. Disneyland hasn’t sold a churro in months.”

He threw a few punches at NBC and CBS, noting that people needed to continue staying away from others because “there’s a population of elderly CBS viewers we need to protect.” NBC’s new Peacock streaming service was put under a withering light: “If you’ve ever said, ‘Gee, I can’t find that DVD box set of ‘Frasier’ my sister bought me for Christmas in 2005. I wish there was a way I could pay for it every month forever,’ that’s Peacock. Peacock has vowed not to run more than five minutes of advertising per hour, and the advertising community has vowed not to buy more than four minutes of advertising per hour. NBC even said it would not allow Netflix to advertise on Peacock. Well, if not for Peacock, how are people going to find out about Netflix? That’s not fair.”

And he threw some respect to Disney’s clients. “What an exciting time to be an ad buyer. At any time, the president of the United States could claim that drinking your product cures the coronavirus.”

Though Madison Avenue has focused more intently on streaming video in recent years, Kimmel reminded them of some distinct advantages traditional TV has over the new medium. “TV doesn’t buffer. TV never freezes up on you. TV doesn’t constantly suggest what other shows you should watch. TV doesn’t ask you for a password you can’t remember or ask if you accept cookies or start playing another episode without giving you enough time to say you don’t want to watch another episode.”

And yet, he reminded the crowd that Disney operates its own streaming outlets: “We don’t have the Olympics. No one does. But we have something better than the Olympics. We have Disney Plus. Disney Plus is thriving. That’s right, our most successful platform is the one you’re not allowed to be on.”

Even as Kimmel attempted to restore a sense of normalcy to the upfront, he  acknowledged the event just wasn’t the same this year, as it left him having to do jokes without any feedback from a live audience. “I feel like every show on Quibi right now,” he quipped.

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