TV Upfront

Jimmy Kimmel Skewers Upfronts Because That's What He Does

Tradition of Mockery Continues, but Few Jokes at Buyers' Expense

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Jimmy Kimmel at ABC's 2015 upfront presentation.
Jimmy Kimmel at ABC's 2015 upfront presentation. Credit: ABC/Heidi Gutman

While the tradition may not be as entrenched as the WME Peter Luger dinner, the lox at the CBS breakfast or the inevitable horseplay in Central Park following the Fox party, Jimmy Kimmel's lacerating set at the ABC upfront presentation has become an indispensible ritual for ad buyers, sellers and network suits.

Tuesday afternoon marked the thirteenth time the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" host took the stage at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, and while his jabs at ABC's rivals were no less stinging, the comic eased up on the speaking-truth-to-power shtick. There would be no reprise of his bit from 2012, when he groused, "How many times do I have to tell you this is bullshit? This is bullshit."

The annual reminder that buying TV means investing in shows that will fail 9 times out of 10 was absent from this year's set; nor did Mr. Kimmel make cracks about creeping senescence in broadcast viewers or the inherent gullibility of buyers. Whether that was a function of Mr. Kimmel not wanting to pour cold water all over ABC sales chief Geri Wang's data-intensive pitch or just a tacit acknowledgment that it's bad business to celebrate TV's seemingly inexorable decline to a room full of people who have other places to spend their clients' money, is anyone's guess.

"It's all in good fun, but I can see why maybe why they'd want to tone it down a little," said one TV buyer after the show let out. "The old jokes about how the networks are going to walk away with our money even though nothing's working … they don't really reflect the reality of the marketplace. For one thing, there are too many other places where we can put our dollars."

For all that, things are starting to turn around at ABC, which was the only Big Four network to actually demonstrate year-to-year ratings growth. And last week ABC renewed all but a handful of its freshman scripted series, a significant reversal from a year ago, when only three new shows were booked for a return engagement. So while risk remains a constant in media buying-- bearing in mind that said risks are mitigated by ratings guarantees and cancelation options -- an investment in ABC is demonstrably a more advantageous strategy than in years past.

Of course, Mr. Kimmel's antics may be a lot less endearing if you happen to be an embattled CMO. "If I'm one of those guys with an 18-, 24-month lifespan, I'm probably sitting there going, 'Laugh it up, smartass,'" the buyer laughed. "'Great, this clown makes $10 million a year and I'm going to lose my job because my marketing plan didn't pay off. Hilarious."

If Mr. Kimmel was a bit more guarded in his approach to lampooning the industry as a whole, he remained his usual affably bloodthirsty self when taking digs at CBS, NBC and Fox. Early on, he landed a clean punch to the glass jaw that is NBC News, thanking Brian Williams for helping ABC's "World News Tonight" win a ratings race for the first time in seven years.

"NBC didn't mention it yesterday, but Brian of course was suspended for six months for basically doing what we're doing to you right now," Mr. Kimmel said. Indeed, for the first time in at least a decade, NBC left the news division entirely out of its Monday morning upfront pitch.

Turning to beleaguered Fox, Mr. Kimmel skewered the last-place network for effectively cudgeling buyers over the head with the success of "Empire" ("Did they mention it during their presentation?") before ridiculing the once mighty "American Idol." "'Idol' felt like one of those things that would be around forever, like herpes," he sneered. "Without 'Idol' there'd be no Simon Cowell, there'd be no Ryan Seacrest, and we'd never have known that the person we thought was Steven Tyler is actually just a bunch of scarves wrapped around a boner."

Mr. Kimmel made the usual easy gags about CBS's greying demo, but he also got a big laugh when he noted that the casts of ABC's hit shows "are so diverse that when CBS drives by, they lock their car doors."

In time-honored fashion, the comic reserved the best one-liners for the people who sign his checks. In one quick strike, Mr. Kimmel managed to send up ABC's mania for applying hashtags to everything in sight and its ongoing ratings difficulties on nights that aren't entirely hand-crafted by showrunner Shonda Rhimes: "We have two hashtags: #TGIT for 'Thank God It's Thursday' and #OFITROTW, which stands for, 'Oh Fuck, It's the Rest of the Week.'"

Mr. Kimmel also let fly with a few zingers that were specifically pitched to the planners who help develop product placement opportunities for ABC's series. In one case, he followed a lament about the automobile-related death of a key "Grey's Anatomy" character with the observation that "this was not exactly the integration that the people at Kia were hoping for."

But the line that made Avery Fisher Hall erupt was a dig at a trade pub. "Everyone thinks we're dying," Mr. Kimmel said, while referencing a recent story penned by Ad Age alum Brian Steinberg. "Variety said time might be running out for prime-time television. You hear that, guys? Print journalism's saying our days are numbered."

That everyone is now in on the joke perhaps diminishes Mr. Kimmel's gleeful anarchism to some small degree. In 2009, a New York Times reporter launched into a breathless recap of the comedian's "subversive" upfront performance thusly: "If Jimmy Kimmel still has a job at ABC on Wednesday, he is either a very lucky or very deft comedian, or he has great blackmail photos of the network executives."

The Times piece went on to characterize Mr. Kimmel's set as a "'Jerry Maguire-like moment of clarity,'" suggesting that the comments were unscripted, unapproved and unprecedented in the annals of the ABC upfront.

Joke's on you, pal.

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