By Anna Sekula Posted May 18, 2012, 6:13 PM EDT
As the landscape for Upfront Week becomes increasingly crowded with presentations and parties, the major broadcast television networks are competing even harder for the attention of advertising agencies. The four days in May when NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and the CW make their big attempts to elicit ad dollars from media buyers while releasing plans for the fall TV schedule is now packed with outings from entities previously considered as catering to a niche market. That includes fast-growing cable channels like USA and Spanish language networks bolstered by a rapidly rising Hispanic population.
However, it's not just the timing of the efforts from smaller brands that's worth noting, but their approach as well. What's stealing attention away from the so-called “big five” are affairs that boast a similar level of entertainment, style of venue, and even receptions with lavish buffet spreads. No longer casual diversions at restaurants, clubs, or blank event spaces, the newer additions to Upfront Week are taking over large, landmark theaters and putting talent and big-name musical acts on stage.
For instance, on the same day ABC held court at Avery Fisher Hall with Jimmy Kimmel, Univision packed the 1,800-seat New Amsterdam Theatre for a show that finished with a performance by Shakira and was followed by a party at Cipriani 42nd Street. Sofia Vergara, star of ABC comedy Modern Family, even made an appearance on stage at Univision, saying, “I might work someplace else, but this is where I live.” Turner showed its serious and playful sides another day, bookending the CBS announcement at Carnegie Hall with a morning presentation for TBS and TNT at the Hammerstein Ballroom and late-night bashes for Adult Swim at Roseland Ballroom and TruTV at Providence.
The importance of being able to join the broadcast networks in their B-to-B sales pitches was not lost on USA Network, which moved to the Thursday afternoon time slot after hosting an upfront a fortnight before Upfront Week in 2011. The decision made jointly by the NBC Universal-owned property's sales, marketing, and programming departments was designed to underscore how big a player the brand has become. Not only was USA Network able to fill Alice Tully Hall's 1,087-seat Starr Theatre, it also managed to amplify the event on social media networks. This included inviting more than 100 fans to tweet from the arrivals carpet using the #USAUpfront hashtag and having wrestler John Cena announce an additional hour of W.W.E. Raw programming on stage and via Twitter simultaneously.
That's not to say that the broadcast networks didn't make a splash themselves. NBC moved from last year's site of the Hilton New York to Radio City Music Hall, an appropriate choice for a presentation that included live vocal performances by Smash's Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty and The Voice winner Jermaine Paul. John Legend, Kelly Clarkson, and Robin Thicke joined Kimmel as party of ABC's entertainment line up, while the CW's late morning gathering at New York City Center put rapper Flo Rida on stage. Fox returned to the Beacon Theatre, making headlines this time for an appearance by Britney Spears—a new judge on X Factor—and Mary J. Blige as the closing act.
CBS, which has the highest viewership of the broadcast networks, put on a much more energetic function than last year, opening with a comic skit that had Jo Ann Ross, president of network sales, in a waitress outfit beside the stars of 2 Broke Girls, a hip-hop opera mash-up with LL Cool J and soprano Danielle de Niese, and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning brandishing the Vince Lombardi trophy when talk turned to the Super Bowl.