Executives from the major television networks gathered in New York last week to make presentations of their 2016-17 programs to advertisers and to the media last week in a mid-May ritual known as the upfronts. While the emphasis was on primetime offerings, sports was front and center as well.
Fox, which finally said goodbye to “American Idol,” made sure that everyone knew that they would be the home of Super Bowl LI (the NFL is going back to Roman numerals for its big game again) as well as the 2016 World Series.
In September Fox will launch a new drama called “Pitch,” which imagines what it would be like if Major League Baseball had a female pitcher. The show’s executives are from Philadelphia so it’s safe to say that the 2014 exploits of the 13-year old Mo’ne Davis in the Little League World Series were an inspiration. Major League Baseball, which has long had a partnership with Fox, sees this show as a great way of expanding its fan base. MLB is letting the show use San Diego’s Petco Park and full use of team names and logos to give it a more realistic feel. Former big leaguers Gregg Olson and Royce Clayton are serving as technical advisers.
ESPN touted the fact that they offer more hours of live programming than any other network and that attracts premium advertisers. Hollis native and ESPN “First Take” co-host Stephen A. Smith paid tribute to his former debating partner, Skip Bayless, who is rumored to be joining Fox Sports 1. He told me after the presentation that he has four or five replacements in mind for Bayless’s spot. “And yes, my mom still lives in Hollis, and so I go back to visit frequently.”
ESPN always adds glitz by bringing in star athletes to its upfront. Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard on the stage of the Minskoff Theater with Sportscenter host Scott Van Pelt. I ran into Noah afterwards and asked him if he was aware of five year-old Ashtin Gerberg of Wilmington, NC who has become a social media sensation. Ashtin, with his long blond hair, is known by the nickname of “Mini-Thor” thanks to his uncanny resemblance to Syndergaard and the fact that he has a blazing fastball. “Oh yes. The kid has excellent mechanics,” Noah said with a smile.
Turner Entertainment is making a big bet on video game competition being for them what the X Games were to ESPN a generation ago. TBS will be having a Friday night “ELEAGUE” show as gamers compete for big money. ESPN also a few e-sports shows in the hopper but its CEO, John Skipper, is not going all in the way that his Turner counterpart David Levy is. Levy is aware that this is a very risky bet.
World Wrestling Entertainment square-jawed hero John Cena has been keeping very busy outside of the ring the past few years. He has a thriving acting career and showed a surprising flair for comedy in last year’s summer hit film, “Trainwreck,” that starred Amy Schumer. He is currently the host of Fox’s Survivor-style reality series, “American Grit,” and ESPN just announced that he will host their mid-July awards show, “The ESPYs.” WWE fans however don’t have to worry about Cena getting away from pro wrestling the way that both “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have. “I always want to be a part of the WWE. It’s my primary affiliation,” Cena told me at the Fox upfront.
Univision sports chairman Juan Carlos Rodriguez is a passionate soccer fan and thus it’s no shock that it’s the only sport on the world’s largest Spanish-speaking network.
It will be showing the battle for Western Hemisphere soccer superiority in a couple of weeks with the month-long Copa America Centenario. Rodriguez did surprise a lot of folks when he announced that Univision gets more viewers for the Mexican pro soccer federation, Liga MX, than NBC Sports does for the English Premier League. Rodriguez also announced that Univision will be sponsoring a Soccer World Series which will be a futbol version of the Little League World Series.
NBC, which owns countless cable outlets as well as the famous broadcast “Peacock Network,” decided to have one big upfront presentation for all of its properties instead of many smaller ones as they have had in the past probably as a way of containing costs. The end result was that there wasn’t enough time devoted to anything.
Instead of promoting their upcoming Summer Olympic Games or introducing their newest sportscaster, Whitestone native and Bayside High School alum Mike Tirico, the long NBC Sports moment was a head-scratching video of NBC Sports head Mark Lazarus and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald baking cupcakes.
My advice to NBC Universal Cable networks chairman and Hollis native Bonnie Hammer is to insist on separate presentations for her corporation’s portfolio of TV networks from here on out.
CBS chief executive officer Leslie Moonves is the Michael Jordan of television network executives. His record of success is unmatched in the history of the medium. It’s an upfront tradition for rival networks to poke fun at him. ABC late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, as per custom, made fun of the perception that CBS has a very old audience. The reality is that it is the number one broadcast network in the 18-49 demo. Fox Broadcasting Company chairman Gary Newman had the audience in stitches when he referred to his competitor as “Lex Moonves” and posted on the giant screen at the Beacon Theater a photo-shopped picture of Moonves that resembled Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor.
When I asked Moonves what he thought of all the attention he gets from his rivals, he was philosophical. “Nobody goes after you when you’re number four.” He them complimented Newman. “Gary told me that he was going to take a shot at me. I said ‘Go ahead but make sure it’s a good one and it was!’”
“Consistency but not complacency” was the message that Moonves and his team were delivering to advertisers and to the press. The primetime lineup should be stronger on Monday nights when Kevin James returns to the network in a new half-hour comedy titled “Kevin Can Wait,” in which he plays a retired Queens detective. In his previous show, “The King of Queens,” James played a driver for a package delivery company in our borough.
The most pleasant surprise of Upfront Week was the vastly improved quality of the CW’s primetime lineup. Frankly the CW’s new shows looked far better than anything that I saw at ABC’s presentation. “No Tomorrow” appears to be a clever comedy about doing things on your bucket list before getting too old. “Frequency” is an adaptation of the 2000 film set in Queens that starred Jim Caviezel and Dennis Quaid. In a gender switch, the lead is now played by Peyton List, whose character, Raimey Sullivan, is an NYPD officer who lives in Bayside.
As I alluded to in the last paragraph, ABC had little that caught my attention. One of their more dreadful offerings was a show about a dour talking pooch called “Downward Dog.”
It’s ironic that Alan Young, who was best known for playing the straight man to a talking horse on the baby boomer TV classic “Mr. Ed,” died a few days later. In spite of the lack of technology that existed in the black & white TV days of the early 1960s, “Mr. Ed” was clever, upbeat, and well-written–something which “Downward Dog” doesn’t appear to be.
Every network has one comic who chastises advertisers’ gullibility at upfront presentations as well as poking fun at the hype that network executives are delivering. Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Myers, and Kenny Mayne have been doing this for years for ABC, NBC, and ESPN respectively. Turner Entertainment has called upon Forest Hills native Billy Eichner, the star of Tru TV’s “Billy on the Street,” to deliver upfront zingers for the last two years. Eichner also stars in “Difficult People” on the streaming service, Hulu.
It wasn’t just television networks wooing advertisers during upfront week, National CineMedia, which handles both the ads and movie trailers in movie heaters touted to ad agencies and to the press that the average age of filmgoers is 31 and that nearly 700,000,000 tickets were sold at American movie theaters. And yes, a big screen is better than a small screen when it comes to selling one’s product.
The 75th annual Peabody Awards, which recognizes the best in television news, documentaries, and storytelling (a way of getting primetime network series awards and adding some glitz to the event) were held in lower Manhattanon Saturday and served as an unofficial conclusion to television week in New York.
Bryant Gumbel, the host of HBO’s “Real Sports,” delivered a heartfelt tribute to “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer who passed away at the age of 84 last Thursday.
Safer, like all of his “60 Minutes” colleagues, especially the late Mike Wallace, was a dynamic interviewer who would never shy away from asking tough questions that needed to asked. That is becoming increasingly rare these days in broadcasting.
I remember a 1989 interview that Morley Safer did with a Russian ophthalmologist, Dr. Slava Fyodorov, the founder of LASIK eye surgery that corrects nearsightedness. Even though he was living in the USSR where there weren’t supposed to be distinctions in how people lived no matter what their professions were, Dr. Fyodorov lived like a jet-setter in spite of communism. Safe quipped, “The trick is not to be a millionaire but to live like one!” That philosophy has certainly resonated with me.
“Real Sports” won a Peabody Award for its report, “The Killing Fields,” which examined how poaching has become so vast that the elephant is ten years away from extinction in Africa. Producer/correspondent David Scott reminded the media that poaching should never be confused with legal hunting.
Jon Stewart, the former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” was awarded a Peabody for lifetime achievement. Stewart is also a rabid Mets fan. When I asked him if he was worried about Matt Harvey, Stewart nodded his head vertically and slowly and then said “Oh yeah!” in a very concerned voice. He then added, “And maybe we have to start worrying about (Jacob) deGrom too. He gave up four runs in five innings today to the Milwaukee Brewers.” When SNY cameraman Kenny Kaplan told him that the Mets won the game in the bottom of the ninth inning by a score of 5-4 thanks to David Wright’s game-winning single, Stewart remarked, “You mean Wright hit a ball out of the infield!”
Congratulations to Howard Beach’s David Glover who won the Smithfield Whole Hog Challenge by eating more ribs than anyone else at a competitive eating challenge at the Dover Speedway in Delaware. It is to be seen whether he is ready to challenge Joey Chestnut and Matthew Stonie at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest this coming July .
Flushing sports attorney Ed Schauder recently joined Steiner Sports. His chief responsibility will be handling the licensing of Yogi Berra’s likeness and name.