Reboots, as the past few years have shown, are beloved by the TV business. This week’s makeover centers on the upfronts, a decades-old industry ritual revitalized by a new push into streaming ads.

Fabled New York venues like Radio City Musical Hall and Lincoln Center will once again play host, and a conga line of talent will take the stages, in stark contrast with the strike-afflicted 2023 edition. As the ad business crawls toward a recovery, there are more in-person presentations – eight, up from six a year ago, filling the Monday-to-Wednesday schedule – including the debuts of Netflix and Amazon. (See full schedule below.)

After the Zoom doom loop of Covid, this year’s extravaganzas are sure to feel particularly festive. And the entry of major tech companies, including YouTube, whose Brandcast will cap off the week, will add considerable buzz. But is all of the exuberance a little irrational given the significant financial pressures weighing on the industry? Two players, Paramount Global and The CW, have opted to ditch large public events in favor of smaller-scale contact with advertisers, citing their doubts about the return on investing in a single show.

The stakes are considerable, with research firm eMarketer recently estimating that advertisers will spend about $18.8 billion in the upfront, one-third of their total TV outlay and 17% of what they will put toward digital video. Live events, particularly sports, remain vital and streaming allows for more precise targeting and marrying brands to the right shows.

For the companies carrying on with the traditional extravaganzas, there is no substitute.

“It’s just energy and momentum and bigness,” Jon Steinlauf, Chief U.S. Advertising Sales Officer for Warner Bros. Discovery, told Deadline in an interview. “The bigness really matters when you have decision-makers coming in.” By Steinlauf’s estimate, about 2,000 attendees at WBD’s event next Wednesday at the Theater at Madison Square Garden will be visiting New York from elsewhere.

“If you’re going to have a 72-hour window when you’ll have 1,000 clients in New York City who are not easily accessed any other way, you can tell them your company story,” he said. Beyond traditional ad buyers, he noted, the audience increasingly has representation from Wall Street, distribution and tech companies.

“What I love about the week is that it allows us to really stand out,” said Rita Ferro, Disney’s President of Global Advertising. “Everybody shows up side by side. It allows almost an equal footing, so that brands can decide where they want to be.”

Todd Reinhart, partner and co-founder at DeadLizard, a creative agency whose clients include Disney, said his team has developed a saying based on this year’s combination of streaming and technology. “It’s in with the old and in with the new,” he said. Disney, adds co-founder Bill Skrief, every year looks to make its upfront “10% to 15% bigger” than the year before. “It’s all about immersion.” At the cruise-ship-sized North Javits venue, he said, “you can’t see the entire stage and all those monitors in your field of view. It breaks out of your peripheral.” DeadLizard has helped implement a number of complementary screens and visual elements, including “ribbon” monitors over the audience’s head. The main objective, he added, is “scale and it’s just showing, you know, ‘We’re Disney and it’s all the content and we can’t have enough screens to show all this stuff.’”

Josh Feldman ,CMO, Advertising & Partnerships at NBCUniversal, said the company’s commitment to Radio City (seating capacity: 6,000) is rooted in the same ambition. With the Olympics, Saturday Night Live‘s 50th anniversary season, news programming in an election year and a raft of scripted and unscripted shows, “it really helps to have that kind of environment to use as a showcase. We want to remind our partners about the full portfolio, and to do it in an engaging and immersive way.”

Streaming, in years gone by, was largely confined to the NewFronts, an offshoot held two weeks prior to the main upfront week. This year’s NewFronts proved to be more muted, as Amazon decamped for mid-May and presenters from past years like Tubi and Peacock also left to join their corporate parents.

The business backdrop to the upfronts this year is checkered. Some companies have reported progress in the first quarter of 2024, while others posted declines as macro factors like high interest rates and inflation continued to squeeze spending. On Fox’s quarterly call with Wall Street analysts last week, CEO Lachlan Murdoch said advertising trends at the company “are clearly moving in the right direction, both in the scatter market and in early upfront discussions.”

Given the pressure to make advertisers feel like their time is well-spent shuttling around town, companies have collectively streamlined the concept of an upfront. When the focus was on scheduling blocks or vast network portfolios each wanting time in the spotlight, presentations routinely ran to multiple hours. Now, 90 minutes is generally the outer limit, with some companies aiming for a little more than an hour. That puts added pressure on each transition, stage moment, lighting cue and sizzle reel. “Every single second needs to do twice as much work as it used to before,” DeadLizard’s Reinhart said.

Hispanic programmer TelevisaUnivision is shooting for about 30 minutes for its main presentation from ad sales chief Donna Speciale. The company is turning HK Hall into what it calls “Casa Cultura,” opening its doors in the morning and, after Speciale’s pitch, inviting advertisers to linger through an evening performance by singer and actress Becky G. NBCUniversal is taking a similar tack with its Hispanic media division, Telemundo, with the company hosting a reception at The Shed on Monday evening as a complement to the NBCU upfront. SNL featured player Marcello Hernandez and Colombian singer Manuel Turizo are the night’s entertainment.

Presenting companies are increasingly looking to pack more razzle-dazzle into leaner running times. “We’re calling this more of the ‘IP upfront,’” WBD’s Steinlauf said. The Warner Bros. film slate, which has become a major draw on Max, will get more prominent billing than ever, he said. “We want the advertisers for the first time to hear more about what they can do” to connect with theatrical movies and HBO series, he added. (Max’s growing ad tier has recently begun allowing pre-roll ads with HBO shows, a first for the half-century-old programmer.)

Disney last year managed to assemble more talent than others, largely due to ESPN, with Serena Williams and Pat McAfee making headlines with their appearances. With no strike limitations this year, Ferro said, “In terms of star power, this is the largest ever. It kicks off with a bang and just keeps going from there.”

Robyn Henry, a VP at Production Glue, a vendor working with Warner Bros. Discovery, noted that the show can change up to the moment it starts and even potentially during the show, based on talent availability. “The process is designed to accommodate last-minute changes, so the script can change a lot,” she said, with the flurry reaching a crescendo at the end of weeks of rehearsal.

Andrew Schulman, a former TV exec whose Damn Good! Studio works with DeadLizard, said all of the effort will be worth it for those with the best programming. “Do they remember what they ate there? No. Do they remember what they saw there? Yeah. Is that the priority? One thousand percent,” he said. “Do you remember the show? If that doesn’t happen, they don’t connect those dots, then it doesn’t matter how much experience you offer and how much storytelling you think you made.” In a nod to monarchies through the centuries, he added, “The upfront is dead – long live the upfront.”

2024 Upfronts Schedule

May 13 – NBCUniversal – 10:30 a.m. (Radio City Music Hall); Fox Corp. – 4 p.m. (Manhattan Center, 311 W. 34th St.); Telemundo Celebration – 6:30 p.m. (The Shed) 

May 14 – Amazon – 9:30 a.m. (Pier 36); TelevisaUnivision – Noon (HK Hall, 605 W. 48th St.); Disney – 4 p.m. (North Javits Center)  

May 15 – Warner Bros. Discovery – 10 a.m. (Theatre at Madison Square Garden); Netflix – 2:30 p.m. presentation (Pier 59 Studios); YouTube Brandcast – 6 p.m. (David Geffen Theatre, Lincoln Center) 

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