Upfronts 2016: NBCU Throws Some Elbows, Widens Tent in First Unified Upfront Pitch

Media giant says there is something for every buyer during star-spangled Radio City affair
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NBCU established what it planned to do at its upfront presentation: tie in two broadcast networks, a large array of diverse cable channels and a slew of digital properties into one neat bundle. It represented NBCU's first upfront presentation as a group, with new shows divided thematically—"Rule Breakers" for spiky dramas and "Fierce" for strong female-driven vehicles, among other headers—instead of by network.

That meant a few fewer network execs on the stage, and more talent, giving the show something of a primetime awards telecast feel. The roster of A-list stars taking the stage, often in pairs, included Mariah Carey, Mr. Robot duo Rami Malek and Christian Slater, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lopez and Elizabeth Hurley.

"I promise it will only be two hours," said Steve Burke, NBCU CEO. So committed was the company to reinventing the usual approach that NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt didn't appear until the one-hour mark and NBCU Cable head Bonnie Hammer just moments before the final fade to black.

Complete Coverage: Upfronts 2016

The Radio City Music Hall festivities began with Jimmy Fallon dressed in Hamilton garb, rapping about the new NBC lineup. "Ten new shows appear this fall," he sang. "The word 'Chicago' appears in them all." He also got off a crack about the purpose of the unified show (which, as Burke said, replaced the previous tally of eight separate events during the spring) being to save the company money.

Notably absent from the event was the day-by-day NBC schedule, a staple of upfronts for decades. Sales chief Linda Yaccarino referred attendees to a business-card-sized schedule on every seat, but even that card didn't offer timeslots or days, just a list of new dramas, comedies, alternative shows and live events.

Burke noted the five-year anniversary of regulatory approval of Comcast's acquisition of NBCU came in January. During those five years since, he said the company has invested more than $40 billion in content, more than the value of the initial deal itself.

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Knowing his audience, he also offered a stat about what he called "big nights," which NBCU defines as primetime slots that delivered more than a 10.0 household rating and a 5.0 in the 18-to-49-year-old demo. Of the 61 such nights thus far in 2016, NBCU has had 43 of them.

"Think about what that means when you're an advertiser trying to change people's perceptions of a brand or a new movie or an automobile," Burke said.

New shows getting stage time included NBC's time-traveling Timeless and tear-jerker This is Us, and life-in-heaven comedy The Good Place; USA's Falling Water; E!'s Mariah's World; and Telemundo's El Chema, a spinoff of El Señor de los Cielos.

The shindig also played up key sports properties, including the Summer Olympics, Sunday Night Football, and a share of the Thursday Night Football package. Greenblatt spent just a few minutes on stage, talking up live television, such as the Hairspray production on tap for winter, and special events.

Watch Trailers for NBC’s ‘Timeless,’ ‘This Is Us,’ ‘The Good Place’

Yaccarino took a swipe or two at Nielsen while talking up NBCU's audience transmedia measurement initiatives. She said TV audiences watch seven times more TV than they do using Facebook, and 15 times more than watching YouTube—something that current measurement tools don't always reflect. "I don't run a ratings company or a research company," she said. "But I'm happy to do their jobs for them."

When Amazon wanted to launch its voice-activated Alexa platform, "it turned to television," she noted, introducing a brief bit featuring the glowing Alexa speaker seen in spots starring the likes of Alec Baldwin. "No one has our reach. No one has our content. And no one has our track record," she intoned, in something of a broadcast manifesto for the week. "This business isn't about getting impressions. It's about making impressions. I don't care what those Silicon Valley guys say. There is no algorithm for heart-pumping, blood-racing, breath-holding premium content. Television: it's not about the ones and the zeroes. It's about the oohs and the ahs."

Seth Meyers came on near the close, remarking on NBCU taking over Radio City again after NBC held its upfront present a few years back at the unsightly Jacob Javits center on the way, way west side of Manhattan. "Usually people don't rebound from the Javits trajectory," said the late night funnyman. "Usually it's Radio City...the Javits...the men's room at Penn Station."

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Meyers also poked fun at the broad sweep of channels on display for the day, working in a few bogus networks, such as The Surgery Channel, to see if attendees could spot the fake.

Finally, Hammer, NBCU cable chairman, stepped to the stage, boasting of the joint show being "the most powerful way to demonstrate the incredible reach and expansive scale" of a combined NBCU.

And with that, just under two hours after it began, the show ended, the slogan "Reach Redefined" taking over the big screen and confetti cannons firing.

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Media buyers questioned after the event said the new NBCU approach went over well, that the two hours went quickly, and the thematic groupings were a smart idea. One did mention that it was more difficult to remember which shows went with which networks.

Dade Hayes contributed to this report.

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