Networks Shoot the Gaps In Big Five’s Big Week

ESPN insists it has ‘swagger’; Turner touts fewer ads on its channels; Univision flips the SVOD script

ESPN

After ESPN’s smoothly choreographed 90-minute pitch to media buyers, network president John Skipper told reporters the picture is brighter than the portrayals by Wall Street skeptics zeroing in on subscriber losses and existential threats.

“We’re quite encouraged by many of the discussions we are having with new distributors, over-the-top distributors, and new packages,” he said. “We’ve gotten some real traction with distributors like Sony [PlayStation Vue] and Sling and others. We’ve said repeatedly, we like our hand. You saw today. We think we still have a little swagger.”

The network’s annual pitch to media buyers at the Minskoff Theatre revolved around the theme “the speed of live.” Kenny Mayne, a mainstay of both ESPN and its upfront, delivered another bone-dry five-minute set skewering the ad-sales ritual. “I’m going to talk about viewability,” he declared, as a small stage elevator showed him only from the waist up. “This is me at 49%.”

ESPN rolled out ad and measurement initiatives. Live Connect gauges the emotional state of sports fans in order to unlock advertising opportunities. Another new tool is the addition of out-of-home stats as part of Nielsen’s Total Audience Measurement rollout.

By 2017, out-of-home will be an official part of the Nielsen data set, but ESPN says lift from viewing at bars, restaurants, gyms and dorm rooms, is in the range of 6.5% to 7% for all programming. —Dade Hayes

TURNER

Turner’s upfront message centered on something counter-intuitive: fewer ads.

The company’s recent commitment to reduced ad loads on its flagship networks, at higher rates, means more room for storytelling, execs said. That attracts better talent, the reasoning goes, and a higher class of content and higher degree of engagement. “We need the ad community to support these moves,” said ad sales president Donna Speciale from the Theatre at Madison Square Garden stage.

During the season, Turner plans to air and host some 13,000 hours of original content, including nearly 1,000 hours of scripted and unscripted series and specials.

The 1 hour 45 minutes presentation featured talent filling those hours across TBS, TNT, CNN, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, truTV, Boomerang, HLN and Turner Sports. It kicked off with some repartee between Anderson Cooper, Conan O’Brien and Charles Barkley and also featured Full Frontal host Samantha Bee, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, Billy on the Street host Billy Eichner and Parts Unknown host Anthony Bourdain.

Kevin Reilly, president of TBS and TNT, spoke about TBS’ “unapologetic” comedies, such as Full Frontal and The Detour. Reilly said the network would increase the number of shows debuting two seasons in the same calendar year, such as Angie Tribeca, as it “continues to screw around with the traditional television model.”

Eichner took the stage to debunk rumors of the medium’s demise. “Television is not dead,” the comedian insisted. “It has about three years to live.” —Michael Malone

UNIVISION

In a splashy upfront—complete with pop acts, Broadway numbers and the Harlem Gospel Choir—Univision on Tuesday announced two new deals with Netflix, one of which upends broadcasters’ relationship with the streaming platform as we now know it.

Univision will air the first season of the Netflix original Narcos leading up to the launch of its second season, which will air exclusively on Netflix. Cable channel UniMás will air the first season of another Netflix series, Club de Cuervos, under a similar arrangement.

Execs referred to the deal in more promotional and marketing terms, and reportedly the cost structure reflects that mission, as opposed to a true license or “reverse syndication” arrangement. Even so, it’s the first time a property originating on an SVOD has migrated to the broadcast airwaves, though it’s a scenario people in the industry have long contemplated.

The network also announced a production deal with the streaming platform under which they will coproduce El Chapo, a series about the notorious Mexican drug lord. The series will be available to U.S. Netflix members after it airs on Univision’s cable channel, UniMás, in 2017. In the rest of the world, episodes of El Chapo will premiere exclusively on Netflix.

Univision also made the most of its upfront venue –—New York’s Lyric Theatre—to showcase new multiplatform programming initiatives around sports, comedy, drama and music. Steve Mandala, executive VP of advertising and sales, said expanding offerings stems from Univision’s “incredibly healthy” core business. “Our brand’s health provides license to innovate from a position of strength rather than desperation,” he said. —Diana Marszalek