Network Upfronts Bank on Sports Amid Shift to Streaming and Drop in Shows

·6 min read

For nearly 20 years, Jimmy Kimmel has served as the unofficial bullsh*t detector of Upfronts Week, that frenzied four-day stretch in mid-May during which the Big Four broadcast networks and a handful of top-tier cable outlets pitch their fall slates to advertisers. With some $20 billion in advance ad sales at stake, the presentations are an over-caffeinated mashup of star power, happy talk and an almost mesmerizing refusal to meet reality on its own terms.

Kimmel serves as an antidote to the manic foofaraw of the upfronts, and his 10-minute Disney/ABC set is more or less the only chunk of the week that isn’t devoted to bamboozling the clients with a weapons-grade blend of star power and shameless fabrication. (Seemingly all it takes to get an advertiser to buy into the latest specious claims about the size of the primetime TV audience is to hit them with the dopamine rush that is the folksy Will Smith walk-on.) Since 2003, Kimmel has reserved much of his genially murderous mockery for the networks’ entertainment offerings, although sports was in the crosshairs of his best jokes.

Kimmel’s sharpest crack this year managed to send up ABC’s diversity efforts while also having some fun at the expense of Disney’s recent addition to its sports portfolio. “What do you do when you want to bring more people of color under the tent? … You sign a long-term deal with the NHL,” Kimmel joked. “White people on ice. After 17 years, the NHL is back on ABC and ESPN. At long last, America’s fourth-favorite sport returns to its fifth-favorite network.”

In a separate riff, Kimmel goofed on his home network for its habit of striking TV’s most-watched content from the rolls as it counts up its seasonal media impressions. “When sports programming is excluded from the ratings, ABC is at or near the top of the heap,” Kimmel told viewers during Disney’s virtual upfront pitch. “And if you exclude all the murders, John Wayne Gacy was a world-class party clown.”

ABC’s assertion is correct, but the actual sans-sports ratings figures aren’t exactly a point of pride for any of the Big Four nets. Pull the NFL, college football, MLB, NBA and NHL deliveries out of the 2020-21 data stream, and all four broadcasters are tied with a decidedly unspectacular 0.8 rating in the C7 currency. To put it more plainly, after a full week of catch-up impressions are added to the live ratings, the commercial deliveries for all general-entertainment fare (scripted comedies and dramas, reality shows, competition series, etc. …) work out to around 1.04 million adults 18-49 per night per network. In the absence of sports, only four-fifths of 1% of the 129.4 million Americans in the target demo are watching the ads on ABC or CBS or NBC or Fox.

By comparison, NBC’s Sunday Night Football averages 6.34 million impressions among the under-50 set, and that’s without the extended dance remix afforded by seven days of DVR playback. (Not that it’s even worth keeping track of SNF’s C7 deliveries; after all, the value of sports lies not only in massive reach, but in the immediacy with which sports are consumed. Because 97% to 98% of televised sports are watched live, the playback data is immaterial.)

If sports doesn’t play a proportionately outsized role during the upfront shows, it’s because sports effectively is a marketplace unto itself. (That dynamic is perhaps best demonstrated within the context of the standalone Fox Sports upfront pitch.) Which isn’t to say that sports opportunities only popped up during Kimmel’s monologue; NBC’s Mike Tirico offered a few words on its upcoming Olympics coverage and Super Bowl LVI, and CBS’ Jim Nantz in a brief cameo talked up the NFL and the Masters.

But forget about sports getting the soft-sell treatment; this year, the network suits could barely be bothered to talk about TV.

While the upfronts always have been a choreographed effort to separate advertisers from their wallets—the upshot of each pitch is that early investments are not only are far cheaper than buying in scatter, but they also are backed by ratings guarantees—never before have TV clients been so encouraged to seek their impressions elsewhere. This week’s presentations all but placed the various streaming platforms in a more flattering light than traditional TV, and that recalibration was hard to overlook. The presentation of each network’s fall schedule in many ways was perfunctory—even Old School CBS, which has always devoted a good 20 minutes to walking buyers through its fall slate, zipped through the grid reveal as if it were an afterthought—and many of the new programs singled out for lingering coverage weren’t developed for TV.

The OTT push was particularly apparent during the NBCUniversal show, which lavished attention on Kevin Hart’s new talk show, Will Smith’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot and the Christian Slater vehicle Dr. Death. All three will begin streaming on Peacock later this year.

Elsewhere, a reverse-peristalsis programming model held sway. WarnerMedia talked up its new “Front Row” programming initiative, which will regurgitate original HBO Max programming onto the TBS and TNT primetime schedule, where they’ll air with limited commercial interruptions. The gimmick is designed to hook basic-cable subs into sampling the premium OTT content, which theoretically will help convert more than a few of these viewers into full-blown HBO Max subscribers. But it also underscores an emerging programming strategy that will find the studios developing for OTT at the expense of linear TV. Give it six or seven years, and eventually linear, ad-supported TV will be populated almost entirely by live sports and various shoulder programs, as well as news and special events.

The evolution is already underway, and the evidence is splashed all over the unremarkable 2021-22 TV schedule. The Big Four this fall will air just 11 new scripted series, and five of these are spinoffs of established shows. Each week, NBC will devote two entire nights (Wednesdays and Thursdays) to Dick Wolf procedurals, while CBS is giving the producer free rein over its Tuesday night slate. Of the smattering of comedies still to be found on the primetime grid, only two series are new, and one is a reboot of The Wonder Years, a show that went off the air 28 years ago. It’s not so much that TV has run out of ideas, it’s that those ideas are being fostered elsewhere.

In the long run, the flight of scripted programming from broadcast TV to OTT will only serve to drive up the ad rates for live sports. Commercial impressions will be even harder to come by when so much of the entertainment stuff is stockpiled on the various streaming platforms, where ad loads have been reduced to far more tolerable levels. Presumably, the long-deferred dream of true addressability will at least lend an element of relevance to the ads that will bombard sports fans once TV returns to its real-time roots—otherwise, imagine the impact skyrocketing costs will have on the live-sports ad roster.

If you think you’re sick of that Cockney spokeslizard now, just wait ’til his minders at Berkshire Hathaway are among the 30 holding companies that are still able to afford national NFL inventory.

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