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What We Learned About TV During Its Biggest Week

Stocks were plunging and Covid cases were surging.

Who’s ready to buy some ads?

For the first time in three years, the upfronts — the showcases the media industry throws for advertisers to persuade them to pay for commercial time — took place in person in Manhattan. Over the past few days, thousands of ad buyers packed into venerable New York institutions such as Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall. On the line? Tens of billions in advertising revenue.

Here were some of the key takeaways from the week:

In 2019, advertisers spent as little as 10 percent of their budgets on streaming. This year, that budget is surging closer to 50 percent, several media buyers said in interviews.

The presentations reflected the change. With the exception of a brief, two-minute video focused on the hour-by-hour CBS fall schedule, media executives barely mentioned their network prime time lineups. At the Disney upfront, the vast majority of trailers and teasers were dedicated to movies and series for Hulu and Disney+, the flagship streaming service, which will introduce advertising later this year.

“This is my very first upfront,” Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, said from the Disney upfront stage before introducing a trailer for “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” a new comedy that will premiere on Disney+ this summer.

This was a consistent theme all week, with previews of coming shows and movies on Peacock, Paramount+, HBO Max and Discovery+ all getting significant airtime. The free ad-supported streaming services Tubi (owned by Fox) and Pluto (owned by Paramount) were also prominently discussed.

“Traditionally, the upfronts are for the TV networks,” said Allan Thygesen, who handles more than $100 billion for Google’s advertising business in North and South America. “But today, because of the incredible shifts we’ve seen in the media industry, this isn’t your parents’ upfront.”

Netflix is aiming to introduce commercials by the end of the year at a time of subscriber slump. Rival executives used that as an opportunity this week to say why their own business was the better destination for ads.

“We’ve been committed to the ad-supported video business since literally the first moments of our company’s history,” said of Jeff Shell, chief executive of NBCUniversal, from Radio City Music Hall. “This is not an extension of our core business, or a pivot. It is our core business.”

Linda Yaccarino, the chairwoman of global advertising at NBCUniversal, struck a similar note, saying that for some of their rivals, “advertising could seem like an afterthought — or even worse, a new idea for a revenue stream. But not here.”

At the Fox upfront, Eric Shanks, the chief executive of Fox Sports, appealed to ad buyers, saying, “We know that without you we would just be Netflix. We absolutely love selling pizzas and trucks and phones and insurance.”

And Jimmy Kimmel, the king of the upfront roast, took repeated swipes at the struggling tech giant.

“Remember when Netflix openly encouraged us to share passwords, and we were like, ‘How do these people make money?’” he said at the Disney upfront. “Turns out they don’t.”

“Oh, everybody loves ‘Bridgerton?’” he continued. “How much do you think they’ll love it when it’s interrupted by your Zyrtec commercial every four minutes? We already have Netflix with commercials — it’s called Hulu.”

One sight advertisers are not used to seeing during upfront week: Fox News.

For years, the Murdochs’ news channel did not appear at the Fox upfront presentation, a relief to the company’s entertainment executives, who were wary of alienating left-leaning Hollywood talent. But three years after Rupert Murdoch sold his movie and television studios to Disney, Fox News was featured as prominently as its sports division and its slimmed-down entertainment division for the first time in the Fox presentation on Monday.

“We are all part of one Fox,” said Suzanne Scott, the chief executive of Fox News, underscoring the point in a prerecorded video.

Though Ms. Scott never mentioned the network’s top-rated host, Tucker Carlson, who has faced advertiser revolts in the past over his monologues about race, he did appear in a promo reel.

Later in the week, CNN’s new leader, Chris Licht, took the upfront stage for the newly formed Warner Bros. Discovery. Mr. Licht emphasized that his cable news network would strengthen its commitment to reporting, suggesting that the network would be turning away from amped-up opinion programming.

“At a time where extremes are dominating cable news,” he said to advertisers, “we will seek to go a different way, reflecting the real lives of our viewers and elevating the way America and the world views this medium.”

After two years of virtual showcases streamed from ad buyers’ laptops, the networks mostly went for shock and awe — emphasis on the shock.

Ad buyers were greeted with blinding lights, seat-shaking sounds and elaborate musical numbers. Movie stars like Sylvester Stallone and Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. the Rock, made appearances, as did a pair of Kardashians and the Manning brothers. The singer Lizzo exhorted ad buyers at YouTube’s inaugural upfront to chant her lyrics “feeling good as hell” — a demand she made again, the next day, at the Warner Bros. Discovery showcase.

On Monday, just as a few thousand unmasked ad buyers packed into Radio City Music Hall for NBCUniversal’s event, an alert went out on attendees’ phones: Covid cases in New York were on the rise and indoor masking was highly encouraged.

“It’s great to be at Radio City — what a historic room to be able to tell people you got Covid in,” said Seth Meyers later during the presentation.

Covid concerns aside (Mr. Kimmel tested positive shortly before the Disney presentation and had to perform via satellite), the show went on. Jennifer Hudson belted out Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” at Warner Bros. Discovery. Even YouTube, a first-timer to upfront week, came in loud, with pyrotechnics, sequins and jazz hands in a Broadway theater steps from Times Square.

But behind the razzle dazzle was a foundational shift. Viewer habits are changing, interest in fall lineups has vanished, and there was that ever-present existential concern: What have the upfronts become, and are they still worthwhile?

“We don’t get to come to the upfronts, shake a few hands, make a few phone calls and have our media investments done for the year,” said Shenan Reed, the head of media at L’Oreal, while presenting onstage for YouTube. “The days of the Mad Men three-martini lunches are finally, sadly, far behind us.”

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