Every May, the TV networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers at an event called the upfronts. They aim to sell their new shows to ad buyers at the highest possible price, while the ad buyers try to stay skeptical. It's an antiquated ritual that, nonetheless, is enormously important to the business of TV, and we'll be there all week.
NBC is feeling cocky.
The past couple of years have seen the network trying to prove it plays a unique role in the TV landscape, with mixed results. But the May 15 upfront presentation hosted by its parent company NBCUniversal (an investor in Vox Media) — which previewed the upcoming programming slates for NBC proper as well as NBCU cable networks like Syfy, USA, E, and Telemundo — was practically a party by comparison. It wasn’t proving so much as celebrating.
Jennifer Hudson, who was just announced as a new coach for NBC’s reliable singing competition The Voice, opened the network’s upfront with a performance of “And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going,” reminding everyone that it was NBC who locked in the Oscar winner, not ABC’s recently announced American Idol revival.
The casts of Will & Grace and This Is Us — whose shows are both returning to NBC this fall to much fanfare, the former after 11 years off the air — held hands and walked onto the Radio City Music Hall stage to wild applause. Kim and Khloe Kardashian deigned to donate their presence to promote Kylie Jenner’s upcoming E show for a whole minute and a half. Eventually, glitter confetti rained from the ceiling as the Minions — which belong to Universal Pictures, dontcha know — squeaked a perky song (I have no idea why, nor do I think it matters).
At one point, Late Night host Seth Meyers came out to do a quick self-deprecating set about his employer. But even in his jab about how upfronts week is “the definition of fake news," what with all its giant promises, the winking subtext was clear: “Unlike the other networks, NBC wouldn’t do you like that, advertisers.” NBC is now — as it proclaimed in giant text over and over and over again — “unequaled.”
To give you an idea of where NBC currently sees itself — and why that may or may not be true — here are five key takeaways from its upfront presentation.
1) NBC can promise to be “unequaled” in 2018 because of sports
The main reason NBC can be so confident right now is that in 2018, NBC Universal affiliates will air three giant sporting events: the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the World Cup, and the Super Bowl. (Both NBC-U affiliate Telemundo and Fox have the rights to air the World Cup.)
And as we were reminded by the upfront’s grand finale, which featured dramatic slo-mo footage, strobe lights, and the aforementioned glitter confetti, it also airs Sunday and Thursday night football, which pull consistently big ratings.
So it wasn’t exactly a risk for NBC Sports president Mark Lazarus to declare that he "would not trade [NBC’s] portfolio with anyone else in the industry.” If you’re making a pitch to advertisers on why they should air commercials during your programming, having ratings giants like the Olympics, the World Cup, and the Super Bowl is about as good a motivation as it gets.
2) This Is Us is NBC’s drama crown jewel, and the network doesn’t plan to let anyone forget it
By the time Meyers came out onstage, he had NBC’s number. “Have they talked about This Is Us?” he asked the room, cocking his head with a self-aware grin before comparing NBC to a newly engaged woman who flaunts her diamond ring at every opportunity.
The audience laughed, because he had a point. NBC is very proud of spinning a solid drama hit out of This Is Us, and by that point in the presentation the network had already done plenty of bragging about the series, even leaning into its reputation for shattering viewers’ hearts with a spotlighted video of the cast crying while meeting their crying fans. In the video, one fan eagerly shows Chrissy Metz a picture of the baby she named after Metz’s character, while another gushes that This Is Us is “bringing people together in a way I don't think any show ever has":
NBC is certainly banking on that, as evidenced by one of its biggest upfronts announcements: that in 2018 This Is Us will air in the eternally enviable post–Super Bowl slot. And while the network didn’t actually mention during its presentation that it’s moving This Is Us to a new time slot this fall (more on that in a bit), the fact that it’s confident in the show’s ability to carry its Tuesday audience to its new Thursday time slot speaks to the level of faith the network has in it.
As for the rest of NBC’s drama slate, the network’s non–This Is Us returning shows are mostly procedural in nature, from the long-running Law & Order: SVU to the Chicago Med and Chicago Fire. They’ll be joined by only three new dramas in the 2017-’18 season: The Brave is a military story about saving a blonde hostage from generic terrorists. Rise is an earnest high school musical from Jason Katims, the creator of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. And Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders (its real title, I swear) is clearly trying to take on true crime à la FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, except with Edie Falco stepping into the role of “acclaimed actress in a curly-haired wig.”
None of these new offerings are what you could conceivably call a risk — but that’s probably okay by NBC, which would rather have a reliable show over an ambitious one.
3) NBC News’s grand finale: Megyn Kelly
“There’s never been a more exciting time to be a journalist,” NBC News anchor Lester Holt declared to kick off the NBC News portion of the presentation, to some dry laughs. The ensuing sizzle reel — dramatically set to Sia’s “Breathe Me” — contained clips from throughout NBC’s 2016 election coverage, from Rachel Maddow making grim declarations on MSNBC to the Today show determinedly grinning and bearing the chaos. Holt was then joined onstage by Today hosts Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, who in turn introduced Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, before finally Fox News expat Megyn Kelly strode onstage.
“I'm here,” she beamed to scattered applause. “I'm psyched."
Kelly went on to praise NBC’s “winning team” and “unbelievable numbers,” gushing that she’s ready to do “the kind of broadcast show I always dreamed I'd be able to do." (Kelly will co-anchor Today’s 9 am hour daily during the week, as well as a Sunday evening 7 o’clock newshour.)
Affording Kelly such pageantry was (like everything else at the upfronts) a calculated move, and a fascinating one. NBC clearly views Kelly as a prominent new personality for its news division, as illustrated by her joining some of their most prominent anchors on the upfronts stage — and, it must be said, not a single representative from MSNBC.
4) NBC’s comedy is still all over the place, but at least it has Will & Grace?
While NBC’s 2016 upfront touted the success of Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, this year the network stayed quiet on Fallon (who’s now more than equaled in the ratings by Stephen Colbert) and focused instead on the pre- and post-election success of Saturday Night Live. Even the fact that Meyers was the network’s late-night representative in attendance felt like an acknowledgement that Fallon isn’t the predictable draw he was even just a year ago.
There were also a few teases of new comedies to come. Champions throws Workaholics’ Anders Holm headlong into family mishaps when his college girlfriend (Mindy Kaling, who’s also a producer on the series) shows up with their son. AP Bio — produced by NBC mainstays Meyers and SNL creator Lorne Michaels — stars It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton as the well-trod trope of a renegade teacher who isn’t like the other squares, man.
But anyway, forget all that, because did you hear about Will & Grace coming back?!
Boy, does NBC hope you care about Will & Grace, as evidenced by a whole pretaped sketch starring the original cast that hinged on the idea that, yes, people loved the show enough to want it back on the air. The network has already ordered 12 episodes, with NBC chair Bob Greenblatt saying he hopes there will be interest in more.
Until about three years ago, NBC regularly built its Thursdays around comedies like Will & Grace. The night was once home to “Must-See TV”–era shows — including Friends and Seinfeld — as well as lower-rated but acclaimed shows like 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community. But since the network backed off that strategy, sitcoms like Superstore and The Good Place are now oddities in its Thursday night schedule, which is otherwise packed with live event shows like The Voice, dramas like The Blacklist, and a perpetual assortment of Dick Wolf’s Chicago-based procedurals. The network is mostly sticking with this approach in the coming year, presenting a slate of comedies that’s scattered all across its schedule — though Will & Grace will get the post–This Is Us slot, back in the NBC Thursday lineup from whence it came.
Ultimately, there’s still a place for comedy on NBC. But just like with its new dramas, the network isn’t about to jeopardize its “unequaled” standing by ordering anything especially exciting, opting instead to play things very safe.
5) NBC’s 2017 TV presentation reached well beyond the realm of actual TV
When my colleague Todd VanDerWerff attended the 2016 upfronts, he noticed that NBC “mostly pretended the schedule didn't even exist,” instead grouping shows by which audience might respond best to them. He also noted that this was a bit of a confusing tactic, given that many advertisers “see primetime broadcast TV as the best way to reach a wide audience as quickly as possible.”
This year, NBC doubled down on not getting into the weeds of the actual schedule during the presentation itself (though you can see it in full here). Outside of sports and news, not a single mention of or trailer for the network’s new and returning shows included information on when they’re actually going to air.
Not even all the pomp and circumstance surrounding This Is Us — which, as I mentioned above, is moving from Tuesdays to anchor Thursdays — revealed the network’s actual game plan for airing its second season. Moving a highly rated hit like This Is Us could backfire, especially since Thursday is generally a more crowded TV night than Tuesday. Basically, if a piece of programming isn’t a guaranteed hit like the Super Bowl (or the Olympics, or the World Cup), there is always the risk that a mismatch between show and time slot could dull any buzz.
This is a pretty huge departure from the tradition of upfront presentations giving advertisers a linear sense of how and when the network’s shows will actually air. For example, Fox’s upfront, held just hours after NBC’s, featured just as much bluster and back patting and ad jargon as NBC, but the network still went out of its way to lay out the details of its schedule to give ad buyers a clear picture.
Still: It’s hard to deny that NBC’s choice not to focus on the scheduling of its television over the bigger picture makes some kind of sense. After all, every network is facing the realities of time-shifted DVR viewing and streaming changing the way most people watch TV.
And as NBC emphasized throughout its presentation, it’s not just here for TV. In fact, it’s making a concerted effort to expand its realm — and advertising opportunities — beyond the scope of television itself. By selling NBC as a key pillar of a bigger media company, NBCUniversal was able to highlight its investments in new media companies and platforms like (Vox.com publisher) Vox Media and Snapchat, its capabilities for collecting data from viewers, and a Black Mirror-esque assurance that it’s “the only company that can reach every single smartphone in the country."
NBC, in other words, has figured out that getting you to watch its shows at the time they air isn’t necessarily its top priority, as long as it gets you to interact at all.
This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that both Telemundo and Fox have the rights to air the World Cup.