The 2023 Upfronts Were a Big Win — for the WGA

IndieWire speaks with the folks who made sure no one had a good time this week — the Writers Guild of America.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 17: Writers Guild of America (WGA) East members walk a picket line at the Paramount+ Summit outside the Paramount Building in Times Square on May 17, 2023 in New York City. As the strike enters its third week the WGA East members picketed at events centered around New York Upfront week, a decades-old tradition where media companies stage lavish events to promote their new programming lineups in an attempt to woo advertisers. Union members have stated that they are not being paid fairly in the streaming era and are seeking pay increases and structural changes to the business model. Many are also concerned about the effects of AI across the industry.   (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 17: Writers Guild of America (WGA) East members walk a picket line at the Paramount+ Summit during 2023 upfronts week
Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The 2023 upfront presentations are officially in the books — let the negotiations between ad sales and media-buying teams begin! Oh, and let the negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP pick back up. And soon; please?

The writers strike isn’t just (temporarily) damming the development pipeline, it deflated the once-a-year upfronts, practically eliminating all star power from the live events and making Netflix’s big debut, well, not live at all. Of course, all of that was the entire point of the daily picket lines.

“One of the reasons having a lot of people out on the sidewalk, if you will, is so powerful is because you have to look people in the eye,” Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America — East, told IndieWire. “You have to realize these are actually human beings. This is not some proxy shareholder fight…this is a human reality.”

We spoke with Peterson by phone a few hours after The CW officially closed the 2023 upfronts, like it does each year, on Thursday. The end was more of a sigh of relief, for all, than a celebration. It had good waffles though.

Peterson said these “big manifestations,” the protests that began Monday morning at Radio City Music Hall before the doors for NBCUniversal’s show opened, should have given “pause” to the very advertisers that companies like NBCU, Fox, Disney, Netflix, and The CW spend hundreds of thousands of dollars — or more — to impress in the New York City spring. “I would receive the message that, ‘Oh boy, this industry has got to fix this problem. Otherwise, my investment in this medium is not going to pay off the way I want it to.'”

OK sure, that’s a not-impossible leap. If the protest messaging didn’t get that point across, the dull presentations and their dearth of new programming probably did. And how much did those after-parties suck? Peterson cannot speak to that — as you might imagine, he wasn’t exactly invited (nor would he cross the picket line). But we can tell you with some authority: the presentations generally lacked razzle and the parties had almost no dazzle, minus the open bar. Even Disney lacked magic this week, when Tinsel Town felt more like plain Tin Town. We needed the stars, and those stars need their writers.

“There’s a reason that a lot of the people who are A-list actors have these promotional things in their contracts because the studios know it’s effective and getting enthusiasm to the point where they can close some deals,” Peterson said.

Yeah, CBS can’t rely on Justin Hartley’s (“This Is Us,” new series “Tracker”) smiling face to get ’em across the finish line this time. But that’s not what anyone should be concerned about right now, Peterson said. “If it’s boring to sit through an upfronts without talent, imagine what it would be like to watch a show not written by a professional writer because of the strike. That’s deadly dull.”

“Deadly dull,” indeed; Lowell Peterson, welcome to the upfronts.

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