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If the pandemic has accelerated the streaming wars — and further eroded the value of a linear television schedule — you wouldn’t have known it from watching virtual upfront presentations from NBCUniversal and Fox on Monday.
NBCUniversal stressed its storytelling strength and relationships with talent — Jimmy Fallon has nearly a dozen shows across the company’s various platforms — to sell a version of itself as a media company that is also a “new kind of tech company,” as Linda Yaccarino, NBC’s chairman of global advertising, put it. Noting that consumers spend “almost 100 billion hours” with NBCUniversal brands “every year,” Yaccarino once again stressed the trusted environment that the NBCUniversal brands — including a surfeit of cable channels, streaming service Peacock and flagship NBC — offer as opposed to the wild west of digital native platforms like YouTube. It is a familiar refrain from Yaccarino, who vowed to make streaming service Peacock a “destination” this year.
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The presentation as usual opened with a produced skit featuring Fallon leading a cast of network talent that included Kenan Thompson and Seth Meyers and was heavy on clips of new and returning shows and almost completely devoid of pie charts and bar graphs. (The latter were hallmarks of in-person presentations, but NBC, like Fox, steered clear of the PowerPoint, a strategic decision to hold the attention of remote audiences dealing with distractions including kids, pets and laundry). Interestingly, NBC will kick off its fall schedule with no comedies and bow only three new dramas, including “La Brea,” about a giant sink hole in Los Angeles. Instead, NBC will save its comedies — including “Grand Crew,” about a group of friends who gather each day at a wine bar — for midseason, when they will run largely without repeats. Smith — sitting in an empty room overlooking an ocean — talked up his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reboot, and Kelly Clarkson, whose daytime show runs on NBC stations, interviewed Renée Zellweger about the limited true-crime series “The Thing About Pam.”
There were lengthy packages promoting the upcoming final seasons of “This Is Us” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and much time spent hyping the network’s dormant sports assets, including the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics (which kick off July 23) and, in February 2022, the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl (which will fall in the middle of the Beijing Winter Games, giving the network a hoped for ad dollar windfall coming out of the pandemic).
Both NBC and Fox showcased slates that featured much more diversity than previous seasons, though Fox has generally had a better track record there than its broadcast brethren. Like NBC, Fox’s presentation also stressed the value of live and event programming including the NFL, MLB, NASCAR, “The Masked Singer” and WWE.
“We believe in broadcast and advertising,” said Fox Entertainment chief operating officer Charlie Collier, who presided over a presentation that included numerous digs at competitors’ rush to put content behind streaming paywalls. Standing in front of a video wall that featured many Fox hits of yesteryear (“Ally McBeal,” “Malcom in the Middle” and “In Living Color”), Collier introduced a fall schedule that will feature three new dramas, including the uplifting dance competition series “The Big Leap,” with Scott Foley and Simone Recasner, and Lee Daniels and Karen Gist’s adaptation of Lawrence Otis Graham’s “Our Kind of People,” about the Black community of Martha’s Vineyard’s Oak Bluffs.
It was a presentation that very clearly attempted to put the streaming content firehose that has accelerated during the pandemic — and saw what could be another behemoth merger with news of an impending partnership between WarnerMedia and Discovery (and their respective streaming services, HBO Max and Discovery Plus) — into a certain old-school perspective.
Said Collier: “Getting viewers to tune into the same thing, at the same time, that’s magical.”