Upfronts 2019: Fox and NBC’s content and commercial plans

Initiative's Emily Douglas on NBCU's Prime Pods and Shoppable TV formats and FOX's compressed commercial pods.

Emily Douglas HeadshotEmily Douglas is VP, Partnerships at Initiative, an IPG Mediabrands’ media agency. Reporting in from New York City, she’ll be sharing her perspective on the U.S. Upfronts with Media in Canada throughout the week. For a behind-the-scenes look at all the action in real time, follow Initiative’s Instagram account: @initiativecan.


Upfront week kicked off Monday morning with NBCUniversal at Radio City Music Hall. The annual presentation, custom-built to wow the advertising community, ran just over 90 minutes and, true to form, was injected with entertainment and celebrity clout.

With a highlight on premium content and scale, NBCUniversal gave hints about the upcoming launch of a free streaming service – one which will be fully ad-supported, free to U.S. consumers, and for some reason still remains nameless.

Overall, the upfront was heavily rooted in culture, with many references to iconic moments in television and advertising, along with some refreshing self-deprecating jokes aimed at itself (and the industry as a whole). It reassures us that they’re willing to poke fun at both of our shortcomings.

It’s clear that NBCUniversal has understood the need to remain competitive in the evolving video landscape. The broadcaster unveiled its promise to re-imagine the commercial experience with new, innovative formats such as Prime Pods and Shoppable TV (the former was released in 2018 and, though presented as a way to improve KPIs and purchase funnel metrics, no concrete results were announced). At the same time, NBC called on the advertising community to help it challenge the legacy process by voting with budgets in the quest to throw away obsolete GRPs to better measure what matters: results. This came with the somewhat obligatory nod to the fact that partnering with NBC Universal means not having to worry about brand safety.

Content-wise, key franchises from its main networks were highlighted, including The Voice, the 2020 revival of The Biggest Loser, America’s Got Talent, the 2020 Summer Olympics and The Real Housewives, to name a few. New shows included one for Hispanic audiences on Telemundo called Nowhere to Hide, crime thriller Briarpatch on USA network and comedic drama Resident Alien on SyFy.

The new programming lineup for NBC primetime consists of nine shows (five dramas and four comedies), some of which were featured at the upfront. Among them are Bluff City LawCouncil of Dads (I may have cried a little), Lincoln (very scary), Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (jury’s still out on this one, but if you like music, give it a go), Perfect Harmony, Sunnyside, Indebted, and The Kenan Show.


With so many changes in the last year, it was hard to predict what the broadcaster’s new, leaner existence would look like. Think of the FOX upfront like the cousin who underwent a big year of transformation, and now you finally get a chance to corner them at a family gathering for a closer look.

Whereas the NBCUniversal upfront was a near-perfect performance piece, FOX took a more down-to-earth, human approach. With this brought a more authentic flair to the event, though some comments have already necessitated a public apology – something I don’t think has ever happened at Canada’s Upfronts.

FOX spoke in broader terms about the power, immediacy and scale of television as a whole, while touting the network’s new position as an opportunity to be more daring and disruptive at its core. Though in the past it made clear that its focus lies in live or near-live events (hello, Super Bowl), it now plans to expand on sports and news by adding a third vertical: entertainment. A great example of how these pillars will look when combined is WWE Smackdown taking over Friday nights, merging sports and entertainment with 52 weeks of live, original episodes throughout the year.

In the spirit of being “poised to pierce popular culture more than ever before,” FOX also promises to become the self-proclaimed leader in advertising innovation. New and evolving ad formats include Fast Breaks (one-minute breaks), Prediction Pods (which leverages social media), FutureNow (sponsoring early access to future episodes) and Absolute A (pre-roll position).

On the entertainment side, seven new dramas, four new comedies, and two new unscripted series were announced. While not new per se, Beverly Hills 90210 will air as a ‘show-within-a-show’. Other dramas include Not Just Me (may as well call this “FOX presents This is Us“), Prodigal Son (your everyday crime/psychological thriller), Deputy, 9-1-1: Lone Star, Filthy Rich (Kim Catrall is back, and sassier than ever), and NeXt.

The new comedic lineup relies on star power from producer Amy Poehler for the animated teen-centered show Duncanville, Outmatched (a family comedy where three out of four kids are geniuses), Bless the Harts, and The Great North. Rounding out the unscripted new releases are the Justin Timberlake-produced Spin the Wheel and Ultimate Tag (think the traditional childhood game on steroids).