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Sports, News Star at TV Upfront Showcases. Will Comedies, Dramas Regain Status?

Andrew Ross Sorkin is the co-creator of the Showtime series “Billions,” but he isn’t really known for drama in his professional life, just financial reporting.

So it came as something of a surprise on Monday, when the CNBC and New York Times journalist got up on stage at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall to tout some of the dramatic fare that NBCUniversal was able to cobble together for the advertisers and media buyers assembled in the audience. It was all part of the industry’s annual “upfront,” when U.S. media companies try to sell the bulk of their advertising inventory before the release of their next cycle of programming.

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In a typical year, audiences gathered for NBC might have expected to see Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon or a few cast members from “Saturday Night Live.” Perhaps an actor like Natasha Lyonne, starring in the Peacock series “Poker Face,” or one of members from producer Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” ensemble.

This has not been a typical year.

With the Hollywood writers strike scuttling production of new scripted originals, many of the TV companies have been left without their traditional calling card to Madison Avenue — a passel of sitcoms, hour-long dramas and the celebrities that usually go with them. NBCU opened it show with a song from Ted, the animated, wisecracking teddy bear. Fox relied heavily on Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez to gin up its crowd. Disney tapped Serena Williams, Peyton Manning and Ryan Seacrest, among others. Warner Bros. Discovery pointedly told its crowd that even sports figures and news anchors wouldn’t turn up on stage out of respect for the strike (a few did surface in pre-taped segments).

The deference to writers and talent, however, masks what is likely to be a significant change in the media business. What if the switch to reliance on sports and news became permanent?

It’s entirely likely. Advertisers are holding tighter to their purse strings this year, so the media companies have to give them more of what they think has value. “The most important drivers of upfront deals are going to be streaming and sports,” says Rita Ferro, president of Disney’s advertising sales.

Disney, NBCU, Paramount, Fox and the rest are less in the business of comedy and drama than they are in trying to capture big live crowds, then monetize them through advertising and distribution. In this era of streaming, movies and scripted originals don’t always do that. Yes, the series finale of a show like “The Big Bang Theory,” “This Is Us” or “Modern Family” is usually sure to snare a broad audience to say farewell, but these days, anyone can watch even the most popular or critically acclaimed drama or sitcom whenever they wish.

Sports and news, however, are perishable; immediate; now. You still have to tune in at the exact moment it airs in order to derive maximum enjoyment from it. And that draws the large, simultaneous crowds that McDonald’s and Apple need to generate the impressions that make cash registers ring and revenue flow, all while spending as efficiently as possible. Sports seem universally loved, but the emphasis on news comes as more advertisers are growing nervous about supporting it.

Disney this year spent an hour of its upfront talking about sports — some playing now (Monday Night Football) and some to come (the 2027 Super Bowl). Next, it was on to news, and even a segment celebrating the news anchors at the company’s local stations (when’s the last time WABC anchors Bill Ritter and Sade Baderinwa were given ample time to talk to national advertisers?).

Michael Strahan became something of an upfront MVP this year by making an appearance at Disney on behalf of “Good Morning America,” where he is a co-anchor and working as a master of ceremonies at Fox, where he is a regular part of its Sunday NFL coverage. Speaking of Fox, the company injected a lot more presence from Fox News into the proceedings, with an appearance by the panelists from “The Five” and well as walk-ons from Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino. In the past, the company has largely kept its cable-news portfolio separate from its presentation around sports and entertainment.

Sports and news got top billing at Warner as well, where the company put early focus on Kaitlan Collins getting named to the anchor the 9 p.m. hour at CNN and a graphics overhaul at the news network before talking about HBO. One of the biggest points of sales at YouTube’s presentation was its new rights agreement with the NFL to show Sunday Ticket games.

When the compnaies did talk about entertainment, it was mostly tied to streaming. NBCU’s scripted programs were identified as being avaiable on Peacock. Disney’s biggest FX productions were stamped with being avaiable on Hulu, and the company touted various Marvel and Star Wars projects that one will need Disney+ in order to access.

Netflix may have bucked the trend on scripted, but all of its chatter about “Bridgerton” and “Stranger Things” and projects from the Russo Brothers was really a bid to get advertisers interested in its new lower-cost commercial tier. And Warner Bros. Discovery offered something it’s never been able to in the past – the chance to run commercials alongside top HBO programs, so long as it’s the streaming version to which the commercials are attached.

The big media companies understand now that what differentiates them from stand-alone streamers and digital usurpers is their ability to deliver sizable audiences, all watching at the same moment, and their efforts to deliver familiar creative concepts that will attract the growing crowds who binge-watch. With Amazon and YouTube diving more deeply into live sports, it’s a difference they need to own, or risk losing it like the have command over scripted fare.

Sorkin may have been an unexpected ambassador at this week’s upfront proceedings, but chances are many others like him will enjoy a new presence at media presentations to come.

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