Breaking Down Upfronts: How Networks and Streamers Used A-Listers, Athletes and ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ to Entice Ad Buys

Network executives once came to the upfronts on a mission to get advertisers excited about a handful of new series coming in the fall. This year, TV’s big players took a T-shirt cannon approach.

Every one of the major presentations during the May 13-15 sprint in midtown Manhattan — NBCUniversal, Fox, Disney, Amazon, Warner Bros. Discovery and Netflix — emphasized the breadth of the company’s content offerings. Call it the everything-everywhere-all-at-once strategy for the streaming age.

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As always, common themes emerged across the week. “Connections” was the buzziest of buzzwords used by executives pitching their hearts out from the stage. Without question, the song of Upfronts ’24, the one heard at most if not all events, was Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ’Em.”

After sorting through the firehose of shows and spin, here are a few trends that stood out this year.

1) Star-Power Surge

Last year, the writers strike kept boldface names from appearing at the upfronts. This year, everybody turned up the star power to 11. NBCUniversal stuffed its presentation with performances from Little Big Town, Michael Bublé and Kelly Clarkson. Amazon went overboard with a nonstop parade of A-listers, including Reese Witherspoon, Will Ferrell, Jake Gyllenhaal and tennis great Roger Federer, with none other than Alicia Keys as the opening act (and yes, she promoted her Amazon line of skin care products). Disney also hauled out the heavy hitters: Ryan Reynolds, Michelle Williams, Sterling K. Brown, Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, just to name a few. Opening Disney’s upfront was Emma Stone, introducing CEO Bob Iger while getting in one more plug for her Oscar-winning film “Poor Things.” The sheer number of movie mentions (NBCU took time to debut the trailer to “Wicked”) felt unusual at an event traditionally tailored to ad-supported television. But in the streaming age, everything’s for sale — and there’s nothing advertisers like more than cozying their messages up to the biggest names in showbiz.

2) The Sporting Life

Sports franchises were put on a higher pedestal than usual as networks lean on live games to deliver the audiences that advertisers covet. Sports personalities, from Tom Brady to Jason Kelce to Dawn Staley, were all over the presentations. Disney used a hunk of its time to tub-thumb the future of ESPN. Netflix bragged about landing two Christmas Day NFL games. WB Discovery pledged allegiance to the NBA even as the company is kneedeep in contract negotiations with the league. Shaquille O’Neal, a host of TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” and Conan O’Brien wrapped up WBD’s presentation with a bit of awkward banter. “He thought I was Larry Bird’s sister,” O’Brien joked to the crowd. “More like Larry Bird’s mother,” O’Neal replied.

3) Franchise Fever

If you thought the big push into IP-based content of the past few years was a lot, buckle up. The power of IP was on full display as media companies tried to wow advertisers with plans to reinvent, reboot and reimagine programs and movies rooted in established properties. Disney and Amazon in particular dug deep into their vaults for new projects. WB Discovery hyped shows like its “Dune” prequel; “House of the Dragon” Season 2 and fellow “Game of Thrones” universe show “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight”; and a “Harry Potter”-themed baking series. Amazon burrowed into the MGM archive to conjure a “Tomb Raider” show from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a “Legally Blonde” prequel and a Spider-Man Noir series starring Nicolas Cage.

4) Upfront MVPs

Applause, please. It’s not an EGOT-level honor, but appearing at more than one upfront event is never a bad sign for a person’s career. This time around, Jamie Foxx enlivened the Fox and Netflix presentations. NASCAR hero Dale Earnhardt Jr. revved up Fox and WB Discovery. Mindy Kaling made like a multi-hyphenate by presenting shows that she produces for WBD’s Max (“The Sex Lives of College Girls”) and Netflix (“Running Point”).

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