Writers Strike Takes Center Stage at Upfront Presentations

Members of the Writers Guild of America — who walked off the job on May 1 in the first protracted Hollywood labor dispute in 15 years — were front and center the industry’s annual upfront week. Hundreds of them picketed NBC, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery’s live presentations at Radio City Music Hall, The Javits Center and Madison Square Garden. Apparently, the mere specter of a picket line and lack of celebrity talent at the Paris Theater caused Netflix executives to cancel plans for what was supposed to be their very first upfront presentation.

But it wasn’t just the chanting, sign-wielding writers walking the picket lines. Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal television and streaming, opened his Monday presentation by acknowledging the striking writers.

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“We are grateful for the contribution writers make to our company, and respect their right to demonstrate,” he said from the stage. “It may take some time, but I know we will eventually get through this and the result will be a stronger foundation on which we can all move forward together.”

He wasn’t alone. Jon Steinlauf, chief of Discovery’s U.S. ad sales, offered an apology of sorts to media buyers assembled in a theater at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. “What you’re about to see is not exactly the show we expected to do today,” he said from the stage. “We made the decision to only have executives on stage out of respect for our talent, and the WGA.”

His colleague Casey Bloys, head of content at HBO and streaming service Max, echoed the sentiment. “Let me just start by saying I am hopeful that a fair resolution will be found soon with the writers,” he said. “Let’s be honest, making this a far more entertaining show. Until then you’re kind of stuck with me and my clips.”

Rita Ferro, president of Disney ad sales, did not explicitly mention the WGA strike, but alluded to the “difficult challenges” facing the industry this year. “As the past years have taught us, you must be prepared to meet every moment, not matter how tough, and Disney is prepared to meet every challenge.”

The lack of actors — who early on began dropping out of obligatory upfront appearances in solidarity with WGA members — meant there were a lot more news and sports anchors introducing clips. But the real take-away from the week was the continued disruption of the linear TV model that has sustained the industry. At Warner Bros. Discovery, executives touted its appointment TV on streaming, noting that new episodes of shows including “Succession,” “Euphoria” and “House of the Dragon” are overwhelmingly streamed on their release dates. (HBO has always maintained a weekly release schedule, unlike Netflix, which drops entire seasons at once.)

But equally important to the WBD bottom line are its slate of ad-supported cable channels — Discovery, HGTV, TLC — that boast unscripted (and strike proof) programs that still command a significant share of linear viewing, and advertising dollars.

It’s why Disney and Fox Corp. dedicated large chunks of their respective presentations to sports. At the Fox Corp. presentation on Monday, sports stars Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Rob Gronkowski took the stage to help promote a schedule heavy on sports including the NFL and this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. Opening ESPN’s portion of Disney’s upfront, “SportsCenter” anchor Elle Duncan noted that half of all live sports last year was watched on ESPN.

The message — ESPN gets viewers in front of actual television sets and in front of brands’ advertisements — was underscored by the star wattage on stage including Serena Williams and Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who received a standing ovation.

But it was Pat McAfee who most obviously — and perhaps inadvertently — drove the point home. ESPN revealed on Tuesday that the former NFL punter-turned digital media star is moving his eponymous show to the network (it will also be available on EPSN+ and YouTube) in a reported eight-figure deal.

Taking the stage in a dark blue blazer that looked at least two sizes too small, McAfee enthused that he was “pumped and honored” to be at ESPN, adding that his previous venture, “a digital media company,” was “a terrible business move. It was! It is! I’m thrilled to be [at ESPN].”

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