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Why May’s “upfronts” week is one of the most important weeks of the TV year

The annual event helps determine the future of television.

Dolly Parton performs at NBC’s 2015 upfront presentation.
Dolly Parton performs at NBC’s 2015 upfront presentation. Later, network president Bob Greenblatt would join her on piano.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It’s that time again — time for one of the most important weeks in the TV calendar: upfronts week. The annual event sees the major broadcast TV networks gather in New York to preview their programming for the upcoming TV season, in hopes of convincing advertisers to buy commercial time during their shows. (There are technically upfronts stretching back all the way to March for cable networks and online media outlets, but the prime real estate is this week.)

Things kick off Monday, May 15, with NBC and Fox. They continue Tuesday, May 16, with Univision and ABC. Then comes CBS on Wednesday, May 17, and The CW wraps things up on Thursday, May 18. Sprinkled throughout the week are a handful of the bigger cable players as well, like Turner on Wednesday and NBCUniversal’s cable networks, including Syfy and USA, on Thursday.

But, I hear you asking, “What does ‘upfronts’ mean? And why should I care?” Fortunately for you, I have answers to both of these questions. Unfortunately for you, the answer to one of them isn’t all that interesting.

Upfronts means advertisers are paying “up front” to place ads in networks’ fall TV lineups

Yeah, that’s all it means. Kinda boring, right? Basically, advertisers rely on the upfronts to bet on what TV shows will be worth airing commercials against in the coming year.

The idea is that the networks will unveil their fall schedules at flashy “upfront” presentations put on for an audience full of ad buyers, alongside a hefty dose of marketing designed to convince those ad buyers their network is still the best bet for reaching the most Americans. Some networks (ABC) will have to work harder at that than others (NBC), based on their ratings in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic or their total viewership. But in an advertising landscape where there are more and more ways to microtarget individual people, everybody’s doing some degree of hustling.

These presentations will be filled with footage from upcoming fall shows. Some will feature big scheduling announcements designed to maximize certain hot shows. Most will feature song and dance performances from network talent. (My favorite upfronts moment remains one from 2015, when NBC president Bob Greenblatt played the piano for Dolly Parton to sing “I Will Always Love You.”) They’ll be followed by parties where the networks will attempt to woo advertisers with food and drink and photos with the stars.

And then those advertisers will be asked to put down their money on which TV shows they think will be successful in the coming year. When they present their new schedule, the networks also set ratings benchmarks they expect each show to hit. If they ultimately meet or clear those benchmarks, the advertisers have gotten a bargain, because they bought ads based on speculation, not ratings data. (No matter what advertisers paid at the 2016 upfronts for last year’s breakout hit, This Is Us, they got a steal.) If the networks miss their self-set benchmarks, they must pay a penalty (which often goes up or down based on how badly they missed the benchmark).

Thus, the upfronts have a high-stakes appeal for both sides. Networks are trying to bet a little low — so they don’t have to pay out nearly as much if a show flops — but not so low that they can’t charge a premium. And the advertisers are trying to suss out which shows are going to appeal to the viewing public, and which shows are going to flail. (Having watched many upfronts trailers over the years, you can almost always tell which shows are doomed, but breakouts are harder to predict.)

Even in the era of peak TV, upfronts are an important gauge of how the television industry sees itself

If you’re a TV journalist, there are two major events in the spring and summer that really clue you in to how TV networks see themselves. Both involve a lot of bullshit.

The first, of course, is the upfronts, where networks are trying to fool advertisers into thinking their fall schedules are better than they are. But this process involves a certain degree of humbleness, of kowtowing, of stooping as low as possible. The advertisers, after all, still pay everybody’s salaries by supporting the networks’ programming.

The second is July and August’s Television Critics Association summer press tour, where network heads assemble before journalists and try to answer for their recent successes and failures. In contrast to the upfronts, the TCA press tour involves a certain degree of superiority, because without TV to cover, what would all of us do? (I don’t know about you, but my fallback is artisan candlemaking.)

The important thing, though, is that somewhere in the Venn diagram intersection of bullshit from both events, you can get a good sense of how the broadcast networks see themselves in an era of peak TV. You can see what they value and what they think is important. And you come away with some insight on how they believe the industry will move forward.

It might not seem like it, thanks to the huge proliferation of cable and streaming networks, but broadcast network TV is still really, really important in 2017. Most of TV’s biggest programs (give or take a Walking Dead or Game of Thrones) still air on one of the big four networks — ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. (Perhaps you’ve heard of The Big Bang Theory or This Is Us.)

The movements at those four networks will ripple down to their cable cousins and, eventually, the streaming networks, as the successful (and even unsuccessful) programs head into reruns for decades to come. While the most adventurous programs rarely air on network television, the shows that draw the most viewers and summarily pay the salaries of lots of people on shows that don’t draw as many viewers are airing on network; in short, the prestige programs so many people love are usually paid for by, like, Two and a Half Men reruns.

So pay close attention to upfronts week. What happens there may determine TV’s future.

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