TV Upfront

Turner Laughs It Up in a Funny, Fact-Checking Upfront Show

Samantha Bee, Billy Eichner Bring the Funny

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Michelle Dockery, who stars in TNT's new 'Good Behavior'; TNT/TBS President Kevin Reilly; and Samantha Bee, who said it was fortunate that TBS began her political satire show during 'this peyote hallucination of an election.'
Michelle Dockery, who stars in TNT's new 'Good Behavior'; TNT/TBS President Kevin Reilly; and Samantha Bee, who said it was fortunate that TBS began her political satire show during 'this peyote hallucination of an election.' Credit: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Like sleight of hand, diversionary humor can be an effective means of separating a mark from his money, and thus far in the four-day slog that is Upfront Week, the networks have gone all-in on the chuckles. NBC struck first with its late-night tag team of Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, Fox got some mileage out of pre-recorded bits from Seth MacFarlane and Homer J. Simpson, Jimmy Kimmel launched into his time-honored scorched earth campaign at the ABC upfront and CBS sales chief Jo Ann Ross capped a round of "Carpool Karaoke" with James Corden by greeting advertisers at Carnegie Hall with a sassy "What's up, bitches?" But from a sheer yuks-per-minute perspective, Turner's Wednesday morning presentation in the otherwise mirthless cathedral of failure that is Madison Square Garden -- let's call a spade a spade, Knicks fans -- may well prove to be the model for the most efficient use of comedy in a sales pitch.

In terms of sheer volume, Turner perhaps was the week's heaviest purveyor of giggles. The fun began with a faux Town Hall debate featuring Anderson Cooper, Conan O'Brien and TNT roundball analyst Charles Barkley, a man for whom the acronym DGAF was minted (Google it). When asked by the CNN anchor how he interpreted Turner's bid to "reimagine television," Sir Charles replied, "I have no earthly idea what that means," before adding that it probably had something to do with "just coming up with some new shows." (He's not wrong.)

After some clowning with a Skyped-in Shaquille O'Neal -- the big man didn't make it to the Garden because "four-time NBA champions don't do upfronts" -- Conan thanked some key sponsors of his late night show, a murderer's row that included Gold Bond medicated powder, a knockoff of a popular brand of orthotic shoe inserts ("Mr. Scholl's") and the equally ersatz "Kevin Reilly's Career Zip-Lines," for use when "you gotta get out of that old job in a hurry." (The president of TNT/TBS and chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment, Mr. Reilly left his old gig as the entertainment chairman of Fox a few weeks after the broadcaster's 2014-15 upfront presentation.)

The Town Hall segment wrapped with Mr. O'Brien gushing that he "could not be happier or more contractually obligated to be here" for his seventh Turner upfront, whereupon he was succeeded at the dais by newly minted TBS star Samantha Bee. The host of the sorta-kinda late night show "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" (it airs Mondays at 10:30 p.m., a primetime window) marveled at how fortunate it was for TBS to begin her show during what she characterized as "this peyote hallucination of an election."

"Premiering our political satire show during an election year was very smart. Premiering it during this election was a fucking gift from heaven," Ms. Bee said. "So thank you Jesus, or Satan, whoever it is responsible for this, and please enjoy my eternal soul."

Ms. Bee went on to make a direct appeal to the "lovely, intelligent, sexually appealing people holding the money" to provide the financial backing that would allow her to become an official sponsor of the Republican convention in Cleveland. "For only $100,000, I can get banner space on the convention floor. I want this," Ms. Bee said. (For what it's worth, we are aware that Ad Age's house style, which mandates that all surnames be preceded by an honorific, makes the comedian sound like a kindly cartoon insect.)

If Ms. Bee clearly won over an audience that was more likely than not suffering from an upfront-related combination of sleep depravation and hangover, another Turner talent used his signature shouty, excitable comic sensibility to elicit some belly laughs while poking a few holes in the tired "TV is dead" narrative. Billy Eichner of truTV's "Billy on the Street" flatly denied that TV was ready for the last rites before qualifying his statement by asserting that the medium "has about three years to live ... so enjoy it while you can!"

In a dig at TBS rival Comedy Central, Mr. Eichner cracked that the very question about the ontological status of TV is "more stupid than not giving Samantha Bee 'The Daily Show.'" He went on to observe that good content will always win the day, before characterizing his home network as a haven for "shows about people being tricked in malls."

Mr. Eichner told buyers that the cast of TruTV's puckish prank show "Impractical Jokers" recently booked a five-day Caribbean cruise with their fans, which inspired him to bemoan the fact that he simply doesn't have the constitution to indulge in a similar stunt. "I'd rather die," he said. "I wish I liked my fans enough to hang out with them." Nor was the promotional gambit perceived as much of a threat to TruTV's digital competition. "TruTV is doing cruises now," Mr. Eichner bellowed. "That'll show Netflix!"

Of course, as the entire point of an upfront pitch is to sell huge chunks of inventory at a later date, the key Turner execs who addressed the crowd kept the jokes to a minimum. Ad sales chief Donna Speciale took a few shots at some of the more fatuous metrics that inform the digital-media universe ("in our world, a view is at least 30 seconds, not three"), before reminding buyers that TNT's reduced ad loads help eliminate clutter and provide for a far more engaging and memorable commercial environment.

The early indications are that Turner is putting its money where its mouth is. According to estimates, with an average hourly spot load of 12 minutes and 39 seconds, TNT is now the least cluttered network in a portfolio that includes TBS, TruTV, Adult Swim and CNN. (By way of comparison, TBS's first quarter ad load worked out to be 15 minutes and 30 seconds.)

Because nobody ever talks about pricing during an upfront presentation, Ms. Speciale refrained from getting into any specifics as to the degree of CPM inflation buyers can expect when investing in such new dramas as "Animal Kingdom" and "Good Behavior." That said, at least one buyer suggested that Turner was looking for 40% premiums in another upcoming series, the horror anthology "Tales from the Crypt."

Ms. Speciale concluded her pitch for the slimmed-down ad loads by saying that she was "thrilled" that NBC Universal, A&E Networks, Fox and Viacom have followed Turner's lead. "Research has shown that with reduced commercial loads, consumers' intent to purchase is dramatically higher," the former media buyer said. "Now we need you, the advertising community, to support these moves. It is critical for all of us."

In an era of ever-dwindling live ratings and peak commercial avoidance, Ms. Speciale's proposition is no laughing matter.

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