The TV Upfronts Promise High Drama with No Writers, No Stars, and No Promises

There’s no such thing as a good time for the writers guild to go on strike, but the current moment may rank among the very worst. On May 15, less than two weeks after the WGA and AMPTP failed to come to a new collective bargaining agreement, TV’s upfronts week begins — a moment when network, cable, and streaming executives woo advertisers with their glitziest presentations and their most glamorous talent. Only now, it’s without the talent and probably all of the good jokes.

Kicking off the week on an awkward note is NBCUniversal’s Radio City Music Hall presentation — one that was set open with ad-sales chief Linda Yaccarino, who’s now best known as the new CEO of Twitter. That afternoon will be Fox’s turn; set for the following days are Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Netflix, which is now forced to go virtual for the safety of NYC pedestrians.

This was supposed to be the year major streamers made waves (and in some cases, made nice) with advertisers. It was the upfronts debut of Netflix’s ad-supported platform (until the WGA and NYPD got involved). It’s the first year with Disney+ AVOD results. (Disney announced its ad-supported Disney+ tier a few months ahead of the 2022 upfronts, but the product did not launch until the end of the year.) HBO Max and Discovery+ will become “Max” six days after the Warner Bros. Discovery upfront, so you know that’s going to be a main talking point. However, without actors and actresses to do the talking, the thrill is gone.

The stages will feel emptier, the presentations shorter, the pitches a little stale — and a week’s worth of parties that lose all selfies value. With picketing out in full force (and expected outside each of the upfronts venues), no talent wanting lines on scripted shows next season will join network executives on stage. That means no Jimmy Kimmel monologue roasting Disney at Disney, which has been the upfronts highlight for years, no Seth Meyers jokes during NBCUniversal, and so on.

The red-carpet presence likely will be limited to unscripted stars; think “The Real Housewives” at NBCU. Famous folks from the news, sports, and music worlds are also probable participants (and performers, from that final category). There will be pressure on them, too, to not cross the picket line.

2017 NBCUniversal Upfront in New York City with Bethenny Frankel, “The Real Housewives of New York”; and Andy Cohen “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen” on Bravo.Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

It will be up to the heads of networks and their respective ad-sales chiefs to fill the void left sans actual celebrities, hopefully with an assist from a punch-up artist like a comedy writer (but they’re generally WGA) or a speechwriter (typically not WGA).

One person with knowledge of the scriptwriting process for a network upfront told IndieWire they believe this sort of punch-up work would still be OK per the WGA’s strike guidelines since a non-televised presentation to advertisers is neither a series or film. That said, the person didn’t expect such a writer to cross a picket line, physically or metaphorically, and enter the upfront event itself.

A second person in a similar position at a rival network said their executive speeches are fully formed by the company’s advertising and public relations teams. A source from a third network agreed with that, but acknowledged the P.R./communications group sometimes sources jokes from trusted “friendlies,” including non-WGA writers and reporters.

Some upfront scripts, at least early drafts, have been in the can for weeks now. (At NBCU, Yaccarino’s is now in the trash can; Mark Lazarus is set to open their upfront, which will require a very different script.) Upfront decisions, however, including pilot pickups and the fates of existing shows on the bubble, can famously come in last-minute.

Speaking of those pilot pickups, another problem: Who exactly is going to write these new shows? Executives can’t responsibly promise a prospective advertiser that any show they’re selling — new or returning — will be available for the fall; hell, even midseason is up in the air. But at least existing shows have established writers rooms, regardless of how much dust those desks may gather.

Welcome to the 2023 upfronts; we’re beyond Covid, but not out of problems.

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