The Writers Guild of America strike effectively took much of the sizzle out of Upfronts Week, as the presenting networks found themselves bereft of the sort of star power that helps sell primetime ad units. Instead of blitzing clients with a barrage of Page Six-grade fame-havers such as Jennifer Lopez, Jared Leto, Kerry Washington and Dolly Parton, this year’s presentations featured a roster of stand-ins who radiated a 1987 NFL replacement players vibe. If you had “Andrew Ross Sorkin hyping Mandy Moore’s upcoming turn in the Peacock series Dr. Death” on your 2023-24 upfront Bingo card—no you didn’t.
Disrupting TV’s annual dog-and-pony show isn’t the half of it. The fall broadcast schedule is shot through with competition series and outright lacunae, as if the network bosses have already conceded that any new scripted projects won’t land until midseason. The handful of dramas and comedies that have been penciled in for the fall look to continue network TV’s remarkable streak of failing to come up with an original idea since Lost bowed in 2004, unless you consider the gender-swapped revival of Matlock to be anything other than a sigh of resignation.
In the absence of Hollywood types and teaser reels, broadcasters leaned all the way into live sports. Nearly one-third of Fox’s tidy 45-minute showcase was devoted to its sports offerings, and in that respect, the network boasted the nearest thing to an old-fashioned talent turnout. Perched atop a bar shaped like an elongated craps table, TV’s Michael Strahan opened things up with a little back-and-forth with Gordon Ramsay, who at last count has seven cursing-in-kitchens shows on Fox. Rob Gronkowski then came out to say a few Gronk-type things, before Erin Andrews and Carli Lloyd talked up the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Strahan returned to wrap the show with special guests Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, while Gronk fired autographed footballs into a New York crowd which lustily booed a passing reference to the Dallas Cowboys.
Fox has been pushing sports into the upfront spotlight since 2017, when the network was in the early stages of selling its studio and entertainment assets to Disney in a $71.3 billion deal. Given that the NFL, college football and the World Series account for more than 90% of Fox’s overall fall deliveries, the sports-first framing helped Fox throw what felt like the closest thing to a “normal” upfront pitch, even if the venue was picketed by WGA reps and an anti-Fox News contingent.
Disney on Tuesday afternoon countered with its own sports-centric presentation, which featured appearances from the likes of Serena Williams, new hire Pat McAfee and budding media mogul Peyton Manning, while Troy Aikman and Joe Buck used their on-stage time to chat with a hale and hearty-looking Damar Hamlin. Strahan, who logs more TV time than Ryan Seacrest and Flo from Progressive combined, was also on hand, only this time he was touting a non-sports property in ABC’s Good Morning America.
As Disney ad sales president Rita Ferro said the following morning at the MoffettNathanson Technology, Media & Telecom Conference, “Live [programming] was a big part of what we talked about in our upfront,” as about 70% of ABC’s inventory is sold in and around sports and news. Ferro also emphasized the huge differentiator in sports, which revolves around long-term sponsorships: “Advertisers come in multiyear on those types of relationships. College football is a big driver of that. The NFL, NBA, all the big ones.”
In other words, more than half of all sports TV inventory is already accounted for, which means that the already feverish demand for time in football, baseball and basketball games is only going to be more urgent for advertisers looking for reach and an audience that’s more likely to actually sit through the commercials. (Given that around 98% of sports programming is consumed in real time, there’s relatively little churn during the ad breaks.) Even in the midst of a general slowdown—U.S. ad spending has fallen in each of the last 10 months—sports pricing continues to climb to record rates; looking back at the last 30 years of upfront data, the cost of reaching 1,000 sports viewers in the fall is likely to be around 8% to 10% higher than it was just a year ago.
So sports-heavy were the Fox and Disney presentations that neither company lingered for very long on its entertainment offerings. Repeating its year-ago strategy, Fox elected against releasing a fall schedule, while ABC gave buyers a glimpse at an all-sports-and-unscripted primetime grid. (The only scripted shows on the slate are a weekly pair of comedy encores.) CBS, for its part, bailed out of the mid-May upfront tradition altogether, opting instead for a series of one-on-one meetings with the nine largest media agencies. Nothing new there, as the presentations have always been prefaced by tailored pitches to the big buying shops, although CBS bucked the trend by loading up on scripted fare.
In advance of the CBS no-show, Paramount CFO Naveen Chopra told analysts that the sports ad market “remains an area of strength,” as spending is on the rise among categories such as pharmaceuticals, travel and automotive. Chopra conceded that insurance continues to be a trouble spot for the networks, and the recent dilation in that particular sector is hard to overlook. Per iSpot.tv data, Geico’s 2023 TV spend is now at $169.1 million, down 50% versus its year-ago $339.7 million outlay. That’s in keeping with Geico’s 38% drop in total ad spend during 2022, a year in which Progressive, State Farm and Allstate also pulled back on their own media investments.
Again, sports’ long-term deals insulate the networks from a great deal of marketplace contraction, especially as it relates to the upfront. Sitting out the spring bazaar is generally an invitation to pay through the nose for fall scatter units, which are also not insured by ratings guarantees. Over the last two decades, just about every major TV advertiser who refused to participate in the upfront sellathon wound up coughing up a heavy premium when they tried to hop back into the scatter market. In a time when national Sunday afternoon NFL units are flirting with the low end of the septuple digits (some spots are already fetching nearly $980,000 a pop), upfront abstainers are setting themselves up for a mighty expensive fall.
Of the networks that went ahead with their pre-strike upfront plans, NBC spent the least amount of time on its sports properties. Discounting a live performance from singer-songwriter Grace Potter, during which she performed a track—“Paris (Ooh La La)”—that was tangentially related to the 2024 Summer Olympics, NBC seemed to give sports short shrift, dedicating four minutes to a sizzle reel (Big Ten Saturday, Sunday Night Football, Premier League, golf’s U.S. Open) and a brief onstage appearance by Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, Penn State’s James Franklin and Lisa Bluder from the Iowa women’s basketball program.
Oddly enough, NBC did not use its Monday morning sales platform as a means to hype what was arguably Upfront Week’s biggest news, which is to say Peacock’s $110 million Amazon-thwarting deal to pick up the exclusive rights to a 2024 NFL Wild Card Game. News that the league had agreed to the first-ever postseason game to air outside of the traditional reach vehicle that is linear TV was held back for a good five hours after NBC wrapped its sales pitch.
On the sales front, Mark Marshall, interim chairman of NBCU’s ad sales and partnerships unit, told upfront attendees the TV business should get a real shot in the arm in the back half of the year, as 32 pharma launches are expected to help offset a withering string of expiring patents, while some 60 new car brands are set to launch between now and the fall. The majority of these new marques are electric vehicles.
Lastly, while the top TV outlets are expected to sell out their sports inventory quickly, a run that will only be accelerated by the manifest uncertainty of the rest of the fall schedule, the big digital disruptors didn’t inspire confidence in advertisers looking for some cheaper streaming options. The sports-free Netflix did its usual chest-beating Mighty Joe Young shtick, as co-CEO Ted Sarandos boasted that the all-important 18-49 demo had “moved on” from linear TV—tell that to the 8.58 million adults under 50 who tune in every week for the NFL’s national Sunday afternoon window—while YouTube’s Sunday Ticket-heavy pitch was undermined by a technical glitch that plagued its stream of Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals just the night before.
Rather than catching the tail end of the Heat-Celtics playoff opener, many YouTube viewers were treated to a repeating loop of a promo for Disney’s live-action reboot of The Little Mermaid. Say what you will about young fans and their supposed disinterest in traditional TV, but the last time a major sports broadcast was interrupted by saccharine children’s fare was in 1968. It was a little thing which thereafter came to be known as the Heidi Game, and nothing of that magnitude has happened on network TV since. Caveat emptor, suckers.