Upfronts 2011 Highlights: Big Networks Pitch With Songs and Comic Banter, Smaller Brands Leverage Talent Connections

By Anna Sekula May 20, 2011, 1:40 PM EDT

Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

With the economy rebounding and events back in full force, Upfront Week appears to be back to pre-recession form. Elaborate sets with multiple video screens, lavish buffet spreads at parties, and rousing performances from high-profile musicians and comedians for the large affairs painted a picture of healthier budgets for the big broadcast networks, which invaded the city this week with back-to-back presentations and celebrations for the press and ad buyers.

In fact, opening with talent was a recurring theme for the shows from NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS, and the CW and included a Saturday Night Live skit by Seth Meyers, song and dance from Glee choir the Warblers, and L.M.F.A.O.'s performance of “Party Rock Anthem” accompanied by a flash mob. Network brass also plugged their social media efforts, boasting about the number of fans they had on Facebook, Twitter campaigns, and other integrated marketing initiatives.

However, the frenzied four-day convention wasn't without some headaches. On Tuesday afternoon organized a protest outside ABC's event at Avery Fisher Hall, chanting about the recent cancellations of long-running soaps All My Children and One Life to Live. Telemundo's outing at the American Museum of Natural History later that night didn't see any activists, but started so late that Dan Lovinger, executive vice president for advertising sales and integrated marketing, sent an email apologizing to attendees.

On Wednesday morning, a power surge briefly interrupted Turner Entertainment Network's upfront at the Hammerstein Ballroom, forcing the media company's president Steven Koonin, actor Ray Romano, and comedian Conan O'Brien to entertain the crowd while technicians dealt with the issue. The glitch was handled with such humor that Koonin received a standing ovation at the post-presentation lunch at Del Posto.

However, splashy productions and endless buffets are no longer the exclusive realm of the big broadcast networks. Their smaller cousins rolled out efforts before, during, and after the week traditionally reserved for the top-rated broadcast brands. This year saw the return to formal upfronts from Telemundo—an event that also touted the NBC Universal property's cable sibling Mun2—and Discovery U.S. Hispanic, a multimedia effort from Bravo, USA Networks' exec-free presentation with headliner Janelle Monáe, and a wild concert by Jay-Z for Adult Swim.

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