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The network TV upfronts, explained by a millennial

I went to an upfront and all I got was these stupid tweets.

Comedian Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt is funny, but I didn’t know he had a show on NBC.
Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

It’s upfronts season! If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry. I, a millennial human being, went to the NBCUniversal* upfront at Radio City Music Hall, and I have returned to explain it all.

Basically, the upfronts are a chance for TV networks to show off the upcoming season’s programs in the hope that ad buyers will spend money on ads to run alongside those programs. Networks offer better rates if advertisers buy space ahead of time — or up front — which is why it’s a big deal for both sides.

The trouble is, fewer people — especially young people — are watching traditional pay TV. That hasn’t seemed to bother advertisers, who’ve continued to increase spending at the upfronts.

But with the specter of tech companies like Netflix, Facebook and Apple creating their own content, networks are scared. Upfront spending is likely to decline this year, according to research firm Magna Global. Critically, prime-time viewership among the 18- to 49-year-olds is down 9 percent from last year, according to Nielsen.

In other words, the networks need more people like me to watch its shows.

Networks are having to make the case that they are producing great content that lots of people will watch. They’ll be so rapt they’ll even watch the commercials. To do so, they subjected an audience to two and a half hours of celebrity banter, live performances and mostly lots and lots of TV trailers.

The women’s Olympic ice hockey team rose out of the floor. I actually watched the Olympics (online!) so I knew their reason for being there, but didn’t understand why they were coming out of the floor:

I saw Patton Oswalt, whom I like, but didn’t know that he was on an NBC show — clearly I haven’t watched it.

Simon Cowell came onstage along with a young woman aping a ventriloquist version of him. He’s apparently still making “America’s Got Talent” and it’s airing on something called “NBC Alternative.” I didn’t realize “America’s Got Talent” was still on, but I do remember it from when I was a lot younger.

Many of the other celebrity appearances were prerecorded. Some of the shows looked promising, like Mike Schur’s live bar comedy “Abby’s,” Amy Poehler’s mom-com “I Feel Bad,” and maybe Robert Zemeckis‎’s “Lost”-like drama, “Manifest.”

Nothing looked as good as the trailers for the stuff I’ve recently watched online: Hulu’s “Handmaid’s Tale,” HBO’s “Silicon Valley” or Netflix’s “Wild, Wild Country” and “Ugly Delicious.”

At its best, the upfront was funny (thanks, Seth Meyers!) and at its worst, it was cringeworthy (World Wrestling Entertainment’s Stephanie McMahon, making a case for how WWE is changing the world for the better, used the tagline: “This is hope. This is WWE.”).

Mostly it was a lot of trailers I could have watched at home but wouldn’t. There was dramatic music and camerawork. You were supposed to feel something. I didn’t.

Toward the end, NBC Chairman of Advertising Sales Linda Yaccarino did a fun bit where she spoofed Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional hearings, fielding unknowing questions from lawmakers.

Onstage, she made the case for advertising on TV. “No family has ever gathered around a newsfeed before,” she said. “We’re not in the ‘Likes’ business, we’re in the results business.”

If you’re trying to sell billions of dollars in ads, perhaps you should be.

* NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns Recode.

This article originally appeared on

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