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What We Learned From the 2019-2020 TV Upfront Presentations

Whitney Friedlander
What We Learned From the 2019-2020 TV Upfront Presentations

After a near-week of parties, comedians saying the darndest things, and broadcast networks’ attempts to convince advertisers that they are still culturally relevant, the annual upfront presentations are over.

While we may have a better understanding of what trends are in store for the 2019-‘20 television season, many of the questions going into this week are still not answered—with new ones now brewing. But, after watching and reading about the presentations this week, we’ve noticed some themes.

Monopolies Are All Fun and Games Until …

“Because it’s AT&T, the reception [following the presentation] will be very bad. Because it’s AT&T, the after-party will only have two bars,” Conan O’Brien, the comedian and star of the TBS late-night show Conan, quipped at the WarnerMedia upfront presentation on May 15, poking fun at the owners of that media conglomerate (which in turn owns media conglomerate Turner Broadcasting System, which owns TBS, which owns him until 2022).

This was not the only commentary—subtle or otherwise—that referenced the power of monopolies at this year’s upfronts. Comedian and Jimmy Kimmel Live! host Jimmy Kimmel discussed the Disney-Fox acquisition and the then-breaking news of his bosses’ full control of Hulu during ABC’s presentation on May 14 by saying that “we now own 20th Century Fox, Nat Geo, Fox Searchlight, Hulu, FX, FXX and—later this year—we are proud to announce FXXX: It’s just Vin Diesel movies and porn and you’re going to love it.”

What isn’t a joke, however, is that all of this happened a day or two after the Supreme Court ruled that Apple—which itself is getting into the original content gameexerts a monopoly over its app system. There is also still talk of a merger between CBS and Viacom—which could mean more job loses. And, in film news, both Walt Disney Studios and 20th Century Fox had layoffs this week. Just like in comedy, timing is everything.

Broadcast Still Rules … Even on Streaming?

During its upfront presentation on May 13, NBCUniversal included the claim that the long-running NBC comedy The Office was the most popular show on Netflix—thus planting the subtle dig in advertising buyers’ minds that the streaming giant’s own original programming isn’t of the same quality as programs that come from old-school suppliers. As Variety points out, while this stat has been murmured about in Hollywood, it’s a hard one to prove because Netflix has long been cagey about viewership data.

This fact is not lost on NBCUni. Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising and client partnerships, also told advertisers that her company’s soon-to-launch streaming service will both be free to consumers because it will rely on advertises and have “data that’s fully transparent.”

The CW’s upfront presentation on May 16 also made mention of its free and ad-supported app. It’s already known that ABC parent company Disney is betting big with its upcoming subscription service, Disney+.

Diversity Factors

The CW President Mark Pedowitz proudly touted his new series Batwoman while speaking at the network’s upfront presentation. He described the superhero series, which stars Ruby Rose as the network’s first-ever LGBTQ lead character from the DC universe, as “a symbol of how The CW continues to evolve and defy convention, and push our creative boundaries.”

Things didn’t come as easily for Fox, which had its upfront presentation on May 13. In a call with reporters before the ceremony, new Fox CEO of Entertainment Charlie Collier grappled with what the 2019-‘20 schedule looks like now that it’s lost, or is about to lose, so many shows with black stars like Rel, Lethal Weapon, and Empire while also receiving a failing grade from the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition for its minimal inclusion of Asian-American characters.

“The diversity of Fox is an issue that is so important and an ongoing effort for us to make sure we’re best in class,” Collier says, according to Deadline.

Fox NFL Sunday co-host Terry Bradshaw didn’t help matters. While on Fox’s upfront stage, he lamented that he was voted off the network’s hit The Masked Singer “by Alan Thicke and the little short guy from Japan”—suggesting he doesn’t know that judge Robin Thicke’s father has passed away, judge Ken Jeong is Korean-American and born in Detroit, or how the game is played (contestants are voted off by the audience). Bradshaw later issued an apology.

The CBS upfront ceremony on May 15 also made a point of doubling down on progressive thinking. Jo Ann Ross, the network’s president and chief advertising revenue officer, spoke of “pushing for fairness and inclusion both in our programming and in our business” thanks to new shows like Bob Hearts Abishola and Broke. She also mentioned that Madam Secretary—a show that will end after its upcoming, truncated season—won the Association of National Advertisers’ annual SeeHer programming award for a primetime series that challenges stereotypes about women and girls. The network also brought out The Neighborhood star Cedric the Entertainer, who stressed that he always strives to have diversity and inclusion in his comedy.

Les Is More News

No one would blame CBS executives if they were nervous about how this presentation would go. It was the first upfront ceremony since former head Leslie Moonves was fired and denied his $120 million golden parachute last winter after stories of the sexual misconduct that he either participated in or fostered at his company came to light.

As some Twitter users pointed out, it’s ironic that CBS tried to make the hashtag #CBSSeesHer happen in connection with Madam Secretary when there are still many unanswered questions surrounding its business practices—and after Bull was simultaneously renewed, with network heads attributing that decision to actor Michael Weatherly’s remorse following accusations of sexual harassment.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Hollywood’s boycott of Georgia in the wake of the heartbeat bill isn’t cut and dried

—These were the challenges TV networks faced as they announced their lineups

—What TV networks picked up and dropped for the 2019-2020 season

—Can Avengers: Endgame keep it up at the box office this summer?

—Why Chicago has become TV’s favorite setting for race-related dramas

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