Nothing was more evident during TV’s biggest week than the fact that networks are at a crossroads. Once the place to show off splashy content that people will (hopefully) watch so advertisers can sell them things, this year’s dog-and-pony shows were overshadowed by mega-deals, messy scandals and streaming services. These topics were at the center of some of best jokes, flashiest costumes and stunts of the week.
The best and worst of the 2019 TV upfronts
Funniest OTT joke
Streaming video was a focal point at nearly all of the presentations this week, and was even the butt of jokes of the late-night hosts that took the stage to roast their own networks and the TV industry.
“I haven’t even talked about CBS All Access,” said “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert, referring to the eye network's over-the-top platform. “Something I have in common with most Americans.”
Conan O’Brien poked fun at WarnerMedia’s OTT ambitions: “I like their slogan, ‘Make WarnerMedia your seventh steaming service.’” He also offered up some suggestions for the name of WarnerMedia’s upcoming OTT series, including “HBO Plus,” “WarnerMedia Now” and “StankeyVision,” in honor of WarnerMedia’s CEO John Stankey.
But the best zingers came from NBC’s “Late Night” host Seth Meyers, who said by 20222 the term OTT will stand for “oh that thing.” Meyers’ suggestions for naming NBCU’s upcoming platform included “NBC Plus,” alluding to the name of Walt Disney’s streaming service, or “NBC Gold.” “We are not going to go with some crazy name like ‘Apollo Sword’ or ‘Hulu.’” He also recommended not naming the service after parent Comcast. “No one’s had to wait four hours for the NBC guy to show up.”
Worst use of the word “startup”
It’s a bit ridiculous to hear the word “startup” used to describe any of the presenters during the upfronts, but the newly slimmed-down Fox was heavy-handed in positioning itself as the underdog. In the same breath Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier talked about how Fox is starting from scratch, he also touted how the network delivers some of the largest audiences on TV. It’s pretty hard to sell a dark-horse narrative when you’re airing the next Super Bowl.
Terry Bradshaw got some heat for comments he made about Ken Jeong while on stage at Fox’s presentation. He referred to the actor as “the little short guy from Japan.” Jeong is actually a native of Detroit and his parents were South Korean immigrants. Bradshaw, host of “Fox NFL Sunday,” later apologized for the comment.
But the biggest blunder this week arguably goes to Constance Wu, the star of ABC’s “Fresh Off The Boat,” who, upon finding out the sitcom was renewed for another season, tweeted: “So upset right now that I am literally crying,” along with “Fucking hell.” She went on to explain the tweets by saying that the renewal of “Fresh Off the Boat” meant she couldn’t take another part that challenged her. She called the sitcom “easy” and “pleasant.”
The tweets found their way into Disney’s presentation, with ABC entertainment chief Karey Burke assuring the audience that “Fresh Off the Boat” would return, “still starring Constance Wu.”
Jimmy Kimmel even showed Wu’s tweets on a screen, saying, “Only on ABC is getting your show picked up the worst thing that can happen to you.”
Always game for an upfront stunt, Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer at CBS, appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall in a football uniform, complete with a bedazzled helmet featuring the infamous eye logo. The costume was in keeping with the sports analogies CBS used to acknowledge the Les Moonves scandal that’s shaken the company over the past year. In a parody of its NFL pre-game show that opened the hoopla, hosts Jim Nantz and Tony Romo introduced CBS’s new starting lineup, noting that there have been “some changes at the top.”
Worst use of an emoji
CBS’s new comedy “Bob Hearts Abishola” garnered some attention this week, not for its trailer, but for the use of the heart emoji in its title. Given that the show is on CBS, whose median age is over 60, the use of the social-media shorthand feels misplaced.
Best Les Moonves slam
While none of the CBS execs on stage mentioned the network’s former CEO, who was fired following allegations of sexual misconduct, Colbert had no problem saying Les Moonves’ name. He noted that before the presentation CBS handed him a massive document detailing how well the network performed this past year. Instead of reading the whole thing, though, Colbert said he read Attorney General Bill Barr’s four-page summary. “Les Moonves was totally exonerated. I didn’t see that coming.”
But it was ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel who really got to the point: “Remember last year when you guys gave Les Moonves a standing ovation? That was funny. How is it possible a network whose logo is literally an eye didn’t see that coming?”
Worst advertiser integration
While Disney cut to “commercial breaks” during its presentation to feature ways it has partnered with brands, WarnerMedia took a different approach when it came to integrating marketers into its show. Tracy Morgan was supposed to be on stage at WarnerMedia’s upfront talking about his TBS show “The Last O.G.,” instead he digressed into how he was hit by a Walmart truck, referring to the 2014 accident that left him in a coma. He repeatedly referred to the hefty settlement he received from the retail giant. “Walmart think they done paying me, too. We’ll see,” he said. It’s not every day you get to see a client slammed at an upfront presentation.
Best unofficial upfront stunt
Amazon may not have been part of TV’s big week (despite having original programming that competes for the same eyeballs), but it found a way to remind advertisers of its presence. The company parked its pop-up Carnegie Deli food truck promoting its Emmy winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” outside several upfronts events. (It even delivered some pastrami sandwiches and black-and-white cookies to Ad Age’s office.)
Musical performance no one wanted at 11 a.m.
Latin superstar Luis Fonsi did a medley of his biggest hits. We are as big of a fan of “Despacito” as anyone, but we really didn’t need to see gyrating dancers at 11 a.m. on a Monday.
Most awkward celebrity interaction
Niecy Nash, star of TNT’s “Claws,” interrupted a performance by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal at the end of WarnerMedia’s presentation, saying she wanted someone to sing to her. Nash’s preference: someone “big, black and bald.” So Shaquille O’Neal took the stage to serenade her with “I’ve Had the Time of My Life.” When he was finished, Nash said, “I feel moist.” Diggs closed out the event saying, “WarnerMedia is clearly the place to be. Everybody’s moist right now!” We promptly needed to shower.
We said goodbye to two long-running sitcoms this week. “Modern Family,” which will end after next season, had its farewell moment during Disney’s event, where show creator Steven Levitan recalled when ABC decided to show the entire pilot at its upfront a decade ago. But the saddest farewell was certainly when the cast of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” took the stage at Carnegie Hall. They all had tears in their eyes, and Kaley Cuoco, who plays Penny in the series, completely broke down. “Big Bang” aired its final episode on Thursday night. We can’t wait for five years from now when the cast reunites for a reboot (c'mon, you know that’s coming).
Best on-stage reunion
Speaking of reboots, this year’s award for best on-stage reunion goes to the cast of “Beverly Hill, 90210.” Fox is bringing back the 1990s teen drama for a six-episode run this summer and showed its first trailer during its presentation. The teaser has already garnered over 18 million views across social platforms as of Thursday. (But just days after the cast appeared at the Beacon Theatre, reports surfaced that behind-the-scenes drama has led to the showrunner and multiple writers quitting the show.)
Most drawn-out skit
NBC’s nearly two-hour upfront presentation included a rather long skit featuring the cast of “Saturday Night Live” spoofing “Family Feud.” While there were certainly some laugh-out-loud moments from Kenan Thompson (who played Steve Harvey), Kate McMinnon (as MSNBC’s Minka Brzezinski) and Pete Davidson (as a very robotic Rami Malek, star of USA’s “Mr. Robot”), overall it felt like NBC was just trying to kill some time.