Fox today became the first broadcast network to send out official invitations to their 2017 upfront presentation on May 15 at the Beacon Theatre and a post-party at the Wollman Rink in Central Park. ABC, CBS, NBC and the CW also are proceeding with their upfront presentations in their usual New York locations May 15-18, with CBS holding its party at the Plaza for a second year. But with a threat of a writers strike that could start as early as May 2 if the current WGA-AMPTP negotiations do not result in a deal, the upfronts are not going to be quite business as usual this year, with presentations likely looking and feeling a little different, a possible later start of ad buying and potentially fewer agency parties with few or no writer clients attending.
As WGA noted in its letter to ad buyers last week, the networks won’t be able to promise full seasons of their scripted series for next season in the event of a strike. While the timing of a potential writers walkout is probably the least disruptive possible for broadcast series as they are currently on hiatus, production could be affected if the walkout goes on for more than a month, pushing the start of the fall season from late September to October. The lineups nets present to advertisers could feature more unscripted series than usual. Since the networks will make all of their new series pickup decisions and the remaining renewal ones after May 2, a few may be influenced by a possible strike.
Even the actual upfront presentations, in which the networks will look to reassure their advertising clients that it is business as usual, would likely feel different. While most pre-taped pieces are done well in advance — before a potential WGA strike would begin — and the bulk of the writing of the scripts for the presentations is done by the networks’ internal marketing and PR teams, some of the networks’ top comedy showrunners usually do punch-up work, adding jokes, something that they would likely not feel comfortable doing if they were on strike.
And then there is Jimmy Kimmel, an upfront institution. Kimmel is scheduled to do his annual roast at the ABC presentation for a 15th consecutive year. Most of it is usually written by Kimmel and writers from his Jimmy Kimmel Live show at the last minute to riff on the NBC and Fox presentations and the new series ordered by all networks. While it is not written for the screen and it is unclear whether penning an upfront roast would violate WGA strike rules, a potential writers walkout would put Kimmel and his scribes in an awkward position and will threaten an upfront staple. Also potentially affected would be comedy bits that Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert do at the NBC and CBS presentation, respectively. (Late-night shows will go dark immediately if a strike is called as their writers put pencils down.)
Talent agencies also have strong presence during the upfronts with a slew of parties. For now, WME, CAA, UTA and Gersh are going ahead with their annual festivities as usual, while ICM Partners and Verve are still mulling their options. If agencies proceed with their bashes in an event of a strike, their showrunner clients with new and returning shows, who traditionally attend, will likely be at the picket lines instead. And the number of Los Angeles-based agents flying to New York for the upfronts also may be down. In preparation for a potential strike, I hear some agencies already are exploring cuts in travel and expenses for their agents as they brace for financial losses due to the strike. The agencies implemented similar temporary policies during the 2007-08 writers strike.
After the marathon broadcast upfront presentations the week of May 15, ad buyers will huddle with their clients, with ad buying usually kicking off sometime after Memorial Day. If the strike goes on beyond that, it is likely that the buyers will wait until the work stoppage is over and there is clarity when the fall season will launch and how many episodes of scripted series there will be to buy. That could push the upfront market to July-August.