Upfronts 2019: Disney touts powerful partnerships and a significant slate

The two-hour presentation featured new programming across ABC, Freeform, FX, Nat Geo and ESPN, with plenty of social and SVOD strategy.

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.

The result of a freshly-merged suite of assets, Disney held its upfront at the Lincoln Center, featuring coverage of ABC, Freeform, FX, Nat Geo, and ESPN network updates. The show ran just over 120 minutes, with a presentation that left me entertained throughout with several deep belly laughs.

Outside of the usual narrative and noble pursuit of reach, serving consumers, connecting with audiences, powerful storytelling, cultural moments, data segments, expanding toolsets and the need for innovation, Disney also put a focus on the importance of creativity when working with partners.

The event also marked the occasion for Disney to announce its complete operational control over Hulu, which was previously a joint venture between Disney, Comcast and FOX. With Comcast (and thus NBC) retaining its shares until 2024, no immediate changes to content will ensue, except for additions from the Disney brand.

Other highlights of the presentation included a deliberate effort to mention Google, Snapchat and Twitter (among others), in part to further expand audiences – something that stood out from the other upfronts I have attended thus far. The “power of the portfolio” was also mentioned quite a bit, but we can’t blame Disney – how else can one repeatedly reference all their recent acquisitions and ultra-complex reorg without boring the audience?

The presentation featured client testimonial vignettes (yes, this is their fancy way of saying commercials). At first, I found the ads a bit off-putting, but in the end I thought, “Why not, you’re either ad-supported or not, right?” And of course, the incomparable Jimmy Kimmel, who spared no one with his biting humour while he roasted ABC. Nothing was off limits, including many of the affirmations presented in the upfront presentation itself (“The future of TV is TV — what does that even mean?”). Everyone from Constance Wu to Felicity Huffman to all the other networks were on the impact end of the punching bag. His solution for getting Gen Z to watch network TV: “Vape-able content.”

In terms of new content, I am most excited about the long-awaited fourth season of FX’s Fargo, featuring Chris Rock (we didn’t get any spoilers except that the character has a name: Loy Cannon) and the ABC comedy Li’l Dicky (starring real-life rapper/comic Li’l Dicky).

ABC announced only three new scripted dramas for the fall: mystery cop show Emergence, Stumptown (Cobie Smulders takes a crack at playing detective), and Mixed-ish — a spin-off of the hit show Black-ish. In unscripted shows, Tiffany Haddish will star in a reboot of Kids Say the Darndest Things.

FX will welcome four new projects this fall. In addition to Fargo, the dramatic lineup includes Mrs. America (a limited series about the Equal Rights Amendment with Cate Blanchett at the helm). And, Sonoya Mizuno of Crazy Rich Asians fame joins Parks and Rec‘s Nick Offerman in the sci-fi murder mystery thriller Devs. The only comedy on the books is Li’l Dicky.

ESPN is going all in on “reimaging the future of sports” with innovative ideas (we’re talking sports-gambling-studio-on-the-Las-Vegas-Strip innovative). Content-wise, sports fans rejoiced at the preview of the network’s 10-part docuseries The Last Dance from ESPN Films, featuring Michael Jordan – a true example of quality storytelling.

The Gen Z-friendly network Freeform presented three new programs, all powerful tearjerkers. First up, Motherland: Fort Salem is a supernatural female-driven drama, followed by Everything’s Gonna Be Okay – three kids (one who is on the autism spectrum) who navigate the aftermath of their father’s death. And in a blast from my teen past, Party of Five is being revived and rejigged to feature a Hispanic family separated as a result of the immigration crisis.

Finally, National Geographic released several big programming announcements including Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted (a culinary travel adventure show with TV chef Gordon Ramsay) and a rebooted version of the game show Brain Games, hosted by Keegan-Michael Key. A third season of the network’s show Genius will also hit the airways, this time focusing on the life and work of recently deceased singer Aretha Franklin.