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Hollywood Goes Back to Normal as the TV Upfronts Return with a Vengeance

The 2022 TV upfronts, heavy on the ad-supported streaming trend, began in person last month and they're only getting started.

Jimmy Kimmel performs at the upfronts.

Jimmy Kimmel performs at the upfronts.

Courtesy of Jeff Neira/ABC

If you’re seeking the sense of Hollywood normalcy — and after last week, who isn’t? — then let us direct you to the unfiltered, hardcore entertainment capitalism on display in New York, just five miles north of Wall Street. TV upfronts, the annual period in which platforms unveil their new programming slates in an attempt to dazzle potential advertisers, are already under way.

On March 2, A+E Networks kicked off the annual season of months-long pitches from broadcast networks, cable channels, and (ad-supported) VOD platforms to potential media buyers. Nickelodeon followed a few weeks later, but the first major in-person upfront for premium (read: adult) programming since May 2019 arrives Wednesday April 6 with the AMC Networks event (heavy on Anne Rice and “Walking Dead” spinoffs) at The Peak in New York City’s Hudson Yards.

Traditionally, upfronts are envisioned as an intense, one-week affair. That’s for good reason: The primary TV upfronts, the ones for the broadcast channels (and now a few select, major cable/AVOD streaming players) all take place during the busy third week of May. Broadcast executives, media buyers, and television-industry journalists all block off their calendars for the occasion.

That timing respects the traditional conclusion of the September-to-May Nielsen television season, when crucial decisions must be made about the future of a network’s existing series versus picking up the pilots that have already been shot and screened for networks. By that week, next fall’s shows are selected and scheduled. This gives studios the summer to start producing fall episodes, and networks and media buyers have ample time to negotiate.

Linear television has limited prime-time hours (typically 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.), but ad-supported streaming platforms represent a new opportunity for brands to reach consumers and for major media companies to monetize them. The rise of AVOD offers a whole new and expansive playground that’s packed with serious players.

Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa, Josh McDermitt as Dr. Eugene Porter - The Walking Dead _ Season 10, Episode 9 - Photo Credit: Jace Downs/AMC

Christian Serratos in “The Walking Dead”

Jace Downs/AMC

Two days after A+E Networks kicked off the season, Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution (DMED) announced it would roll out a cheaper, ad-supported tier for Disney+ later this year. As part of the announcement, DMED Advertising president Rita Ferro said she “can’t wait to share more with advertisers at the upfront.” The Disney-ABC upfront will take place in person on May 17 at Pier 36 in New York City. Party to follow in the same location, the one with the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit.

“Since its launch, advertisers have been clamoring for the opportunity to be part of Disney+,” Ferro said in announcing her new offering (price point and launch date TBD). “Disney+ with advertising will offer marketers the most premium environment in streaming with our most beloved brands, Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel and National Geographic.”

Lowering the barrier to entry for cost-conscious end users will help The Walt Disney Company achieve its lofty long-term target of 230 million-260 million Disney+ subscribers by 2024, a figure reiterated in the AVOD announcement. According to an SEC filing, Disney+ had nearly 130 million global subscribers at the end of 2021. The DTC service is looking to double on the high end, on the double.

The expediency comes from Disney+ being late to the AVOD party; Peacock, Paramount+, Hulu (majority owned by Disney), and HBO Max already have ad-supported options in addition to commercial-free memberships. Like Disney+, HBO Max is also doing something new this year at what will be the Warner Bros. Discovery upfront (the merger with Discovery+ is expected to close within a week of this writing).

WONDER WOMAN, Gal Gadot, 2017. ph: Clay Enos. ©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

WONDER WOMAN, Gal Gadot, 2017

©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Last May’s virtual WarnerMedia event included the ad-supported Max rolling out in June, but this May’s upfront will feature that option much more prominently, well, up front. A new product, Brand Block InFront, which will book ads to run ahead of select films on the service, will be on display – and on the auction block.

“The Upfront event remains a cornerstone moment to shine a light on our best and brightest content and IP. To get to do that in person this year and connect with everyone live is just incredible!,” JP Colaco, WarnerMedia’s president of ad sales, told IndieWire via email for this story. “In terms of the marketplace, year after year, the Upfront continues to hold value for futures buying. It’s advantageous for buyers to get in early, not only from a financial perspective but also to lock in high demand moments, like our IP tentpoles and HBO Max.”

Ferro, Colaco, their clients, and so many other participants at the extended upfronts/newfronts (the latter generally refers to digital platforms) will have extra reasons to celebrate this season — particularly at the pricey post-show parties. (Fox traditionally wines-and-dines inside a massive tent in Central Park, although it is scaling back and switching locations this year; CBS prefers the lower-key but glamorous Plaza Hotel.)

All those upscale, large-scale parties, the ones we haven’t seen since Covid, matter to all parties. Even the most professional, calculated media buyers can be moved by a full-size, in-person upfront in ways that the virtual versions can’t touch. The live comedy (Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue at the Disney/ABC upfront, pictured above, is a particular highlight), concerts, and celebrity glad-handing: It works. With the main (and final) 2022 upfronts week just five weeks away, media buyers should start shopping for a larger belt — and a miracle hangover elixir — now.

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