What Goes on Behind the Scenes of the TV Upfronts

Turner, Discovery, NBC Universal and USA Execs on How They Pull Off Their Events

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Discovery toots its own horn.
Discovery toots its own horn. Credit: Discovery

Laura Dames, senior VP-business operations and general manager, The Sponsor Shop for Turner Entertainment Networks

Where: The upfront is a year-round job for Ms. Dames, who heads The Sponsor Shop, Turner's in-house agency, and four or five other staffers. This year's event moves from the Hammerstein Ballroom to Madison Square Garden on May 14. The bigger space, which is wider than (but not as tall as) the Hammerstein, means she and her team need to rethink how they set up.

Who helps: Turner has worked for the past 10 years with Atomic Design, a staging company based in Lilitz, Pa., which organizes the stage crew, constructs the set and coordinates other logistics. Setup also takes hundreds of union staff and production people.

Getting there: Corralling all the presenters is "like a military exercise," said Ms. Dames. "We've had many years in which getting our talent on to a plane that was actually going to land in New York on time required a lot of last-minute magic," she said. "One year, the plane with the majority of our talent got in after 2 a.m." But that's just the beginning. Escorting the stars "through the streets of New York during morning rush hour and getting them to the green room, into elevators, up and down stairs and ramps and through the crazy back passageways of the theater always tests our communication and coordination skills," she said. "Those headsets aren't just for show."

The hiccups: When the lights went dark at Hammerstein Ballroom in 2011 in the middle of Turner's presentation, Ms. Dames' immediate reaction was "Holy crap." When it was clear the lights couldn't be fixed quickly, Turner President Steve Koonin volunteered to go on stage. "He asked, 'What should I tell them?' and I said, 'Tell them it broke and we're trying to fix it. Good luck!' The rest is history, because Steve was so great and funny onstage," Ms. Dames said. "Then Ray Romano stepped up and offered to go on. It helps to have professional, stand-up comedians with current material on standby."

Ian Parmiter, senior VP-marketing and ad sales, Discovey

Juggling the lineup: This year's show on April 3 had sections for nine of its networks and ran more than two hours. In order to keep it interesting, Mr. Parmiter looks for an emotional arc. "We want it to be a theatrical stage show, not a sales presentation."

Making it flow: "We allocate more rehearsal time than probably other networks," Mr. Parmiter said. Since most of Discovery's talent is homegrown, the company plans additional prep time. There are three days of rehearsal in Silver Spring, Md., near Discovery's headquarters, and then three to four rehearsals at the location, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Discovery works with DePalma Productions, which hires crew, staging, lighting and video, and supports production. Up to 100 internal staffers work on the show and up to 250 people have a hand in the upfront.

Wowing the audience: During Discovery's 2013 upfront, Nik Wallenda walked a tightrope 70 feet above the audience. Aside from the safety logistics and insurance required, Discovery had to get permission from Jazz to drill into its concrete foundation to anchor the wire. Post-show, the crew had to fill the holes in the wall and replace the carpet.

Getting there: Discovery's talent-relations team coordinates travel, requiring the tricky task of working around production schedules. "Sometimes the backstage interactions can seem a bit surreal," said Mr. Parmiter. "One year, I was backstage and on one side Buzz Aldrin was talking to the 'Deadliest Catch' captains; on the other side, Clinton Kelly was talking to animal handlers for Animal Planet. The puppies from Animal Planet are always a big hit."

John Shea, exec VP-CMO, client solutions group, NBC Universal; Alexandra Shapiro, exec VP-marketing and digital, USA Network

What it is: NBC Universal is combining all of its cable networks for one massive upfront, which will end the broadcast upfront week on May 15. This is the first event of this magnitude for NBCU.

Where: While it would seem easy to find a venue in New York, Ms. Shapiro said it's challenging to find a space that can hold NBCU's more than 3,000 attendees and have room for both a presentation and party in the same place. So the NBCU event will be held at the Jacob Javits Center.

The program: Ms. Shapiro said its networks are mindful that NBCU's presentation is the last of broadcast upfront week, so they want to celebrate and entertain. NBCU will give the floor to six of its networks, though every channel will be represented.

Who will be there: There will be a lot of corralling due to the sheer number of NBCU stars. In conjunction with the upfront, the company is launching a portfolio-wide marketing campaign that involves about 150 of its stars. The photo and video shoot (elements of which will be seen during the presentation) already took place and required three sound stages.

The minutiae: Mr. Shea and Ms. Shapiro are planning everything from what the staff is wearing to what is on one video monitor vs. another. In Mr. Shea's office there's a "war room" where every single moment of the upfront is plotted out.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated Laura Dames' title. She is general manager of The Sponsor Shop for Turner Entertainment Networks, not Turner Entertainment Networks itself.

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