How streaming muscled its way into the upfront spotlight among the OGs of TV

Now that the OGs of TV content — NBCUniversal, Fox, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery — have presented their upfront programming plans to thousands of media folk, the common theme among the presentations shows how much the industry has returned to its content roots: It’s all about the streaming. And sports.

Rita Ferro, Disney’s president of advertising, put it right out there near the outset of the company’s upfront on Tuesday: “We’re leading the transformation in our global advertising business, one that is built for the future and anchored in streaming,” she told the packed house shortly after being introduced in animated form by Peter from “Family Guy.”

Linear TV, although still a significant part of the buy-sell equation for many a media agency in attendance, took a back seat to the Peacocks, Hulus, Tubis and Maxes — through which so many millions of hours of content are now consumed. In fact, among the presentations from the four TV giants, not a single prime-time schedule grid was seen. There was plenty of talk about content, but the fluidity of that content was noticeable, in that networks were mentioned but the streaming services were talked about just as much, if not more.

With that said, Mike Law, North American CEO of Carat — and a devotee of the upfront event, having been through many of them when he was head of investment at the Dentsu-owned agency — offered a reminder that linear still has a place and a value in clients’ efforts to reach consumers.

“Ultimately we’re trying to get to a world where we don’t need to differentiate between the two,” linear and connected TV, said Law. “There’s some myth busting in linear TV where there’s still a lot of reach and scale there — but there’s a tremendous amount of growth on the CTV side. At the end of the day, when people turn on their TVs, they don’t really differentiate. We should buy TV like we watch TV.”

The major programmers that presented this week also happen to make theatrical films — and pushed hard on their theatrical slates like no other upfront in recent memory. NBCU, Disney and WBD all pushed hard on their movies — and reminded marketers there’s a better chance than ever for brands to partner with those releases as they migrate from movie theaters to linear platforms to streaming.

For example, NBCU pushed its upcoming release of the film version of “Wicked” — and to add to the drama, prevented attendees from recording the extended trailer it ran, replete with security guards patrolling the aisles of Radio City Music Hall to ensure the footage didn’t get out.

Likewise, Warner Bros. touted its success with activating brands around its blockbuster “Barbie” movie last year as a template for getting invested into its releases this year, including the “Mad Max” spinoff “Furiosa,” a remake of “Beetlejuice,” a new “Superman” incarnation and a “Minecraft” movie.

“We’re seeing this balance of, ‘We’re going to create the best content and we’re going to distribute it on all our platforms to find the biggest audience,’” said Carat’s Law. “This week is really about the big moments and how are you going to amass that massive audience to create those audience connections? It goes beyond the day-to-day trading and what we’ll see in the coming weeks with the upfront.”

When it comes to linear TV, the last strong bastion remains sports — and all the programmers made sure to tout their sports bona fides using sports stars of today and yesteryear. Fox showcased Tom Brady, who’s back to being a rookie as a first-time sports commentator on Fox’s NFL Sunday programming.

Warner Bros. Discovery trotted out legends of their respective sports Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Nascar is returning to TNT), Wayne Gretzky (NHL continues on TNT) and Charles Barkley (TNT is expected to lose its rights to the NBA after the following season) to promote how big a factor sports can be in delivering viewers across its platforms, which includes digital-first Bleacher Report.

NBC took to the unlikely duo of Kevin Hart and Snoop Dogg to remind the audience it will lean heavily this summer on coverage of the Summer Olympics in Paris to keep up ratings among its entertainment networks. As sports announcer Mike Tirico put it, sports is the quintessential unscripted drama on TV. 

But rivals are closing in on these veteran programmers’ grip on live sports. Netflix made the boldest move last week, stealing the spotlight on sports with its surprise announcement it will carry two NFL football games on Christmas Day this year. This is on top of Amazon’s 2-year-old incursion into football, and a widely expected grab of some NBA games when that new rights package gets announced, effective fall 2025.

Finally, Disney pushed hard on its sports properties, mainly in the form of ESPN, which has long dominated the TV sports business but is hedging its bets. Even Disney relied on sports stars to push its message, bringing out NBA veteran Chris Paul and adding just-retired NFL player Jason Kelce to its NFL announcing team.

As Geoffrey Calabrese, Omnicom Media Group’s North American chief investment officer put it, of the “three things that stood out to me in all of these presentations, the first is the importance of sports in this upfront.”

(Calabrese’s other two are: following the audience — more on that in next Monday’s Media Buying Briefing — and the return of content.)

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