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TV Upfront

Behind NBC's Biggest Show (That Never Airs)

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"I want to kill myself," John Shea tells a conference room of about a dozen NBC Universal staffers inside 30 Rock. It's exactly a month until the Peacock's annual upfront hoopla, and Shea, executive creative director of the production, is getting his first look at potential set designs for the stage at the famous Radio City Music Hall. As a half-dozen possibilities flash across a screen, his brow furrows.

They spend the next few minutes debating the colors and lighting of the screen that will appear onstage, and how title cards introducing senior NBCU executives will be displayed. It's one of the hundreds of seemingly minute elements that need to be precisely coordinated. The stage show will require 10 confetti cannons, six pyrotechnics cannons, more than 50 live performers and over 100 hours of rehearsal.

Ad Age went behind the scenes in the three months leading up to the dog-and-pony show to see firsthand what it takes to pull it all off. While Shea and his team began planning for this years' presentation just weeks after the 2016 show concluded, it's during these last few months that scripts must be written, celebrities corralled, video skits edited and the truly difficult decisions made.

Shea has learned to be ruthless, even with aspects of the show he might love. He is confident that when the curtain goes up on May 15 and NBCU kicks off broadcast upfront week, the media behemoth will show advertisers the results it can drive.

There's plenty at stake for NBCU, namely the $6 billion in ad sales that Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships, will negotiate in the weeks following the presentation. And while the scenic design or a big musical number might not drastically alter where marketers decide to allocate budgets, the presentation serves as a way to show off the media giant's high-profile assets.

"There's no way you can articulate from a news feed that you are flipping through the cultural power of a 'Saturday Night Live,' or that hold-your-breath [moment] from 'This Is Us,' or you are yelling and screaming as Team USA is winning a gold medal," Yaccarino said. "So those are the things the show is able to communicate—those moments that make you realize that this kind of content is what makes those big emotional connections with consumers."

And people actually pay attention to the presentation, for better or worse. In 2014, Kim Kardashian took the stage at NBCU's presentation for its cable networks, which include E!, home of the Kardashian reality-TV franchise. Kardashian both struggled to read from the teleprompter and called more attention to it by asserting that she never has trouble with the teleprompter. Among upfront missteps, however, that paled in comparison with the 2011 Turner upfront, where the power went out in the middle, plunging a room of ad buyers into darkness.

Even when everything goes right, the glitz and glamor mean less to the agency executives charged with negotiating rates for clients than the real conversations in one-on-one meetings with NBCU, where they can have more intimate discussions.

"As much as some people might enjoy the whole week and the thrill of it and the talent, from a business perspective I don't think it is that practical," said Catherine Sullivan, president of U.S. investment at Omnicom Media Group, herself a veteran of the sales side who spent 15 years at ABC and another 14 at NBC. "I know how much money and time is spent on the network side doing these presentations. Personally, I'd rather they come in and have those kinds of conversations and get the right people at the table—the content makers and the people who can make decisions."

That does nothing to lessen the pressure on the teams mounting upfront events, of course­. Perhaps it's the opposite.

For the first time, last year NBCU brought all of its broadcast and cable networks together for one big show. In the process, it did away with a North Star of the broadcast presentation: going night by night to highlight shows and talent. While some praised the company's decision to feature series by category and to do away with the programming grid, others said the format was confusing.

This year, NBCU is taking a cue from awards shows. "We've looked at the best and the worst of awards shows," Shea said during a shoot in February. "This is our Oscars. Hopefully, we won't have the same ending."