10 Takeaways from the 2023-2024 Upfronts: Few Celebs, Lots of Questions
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Everyone knew that the 2023-2024 upfront season was going to be an odd one. But even with lowered expectations, the tone around the upfronts was bizarre. As members of the WGA protested outside, networks played endless clips of shows divorced from concrete schedules. Appearances from celebrities, which have come to define these events, were replaced by visually uncomfortable sports stars and talk show hosts reenacting their shows in front of a pool of captive advertisers.
Some trends did emerge. Unscripted is in and every network wants to cash in on live sports. Yet the biggest takeaway of this approaching fall season was that no one quite knows what’s ahead. Here’s what TheWrap learned, what excited us and what left us scratching our heads.
Unscripted is the word
When it comes to figuring out how to react to the WGA strike, every network reached the same conclusion: double down on unscripted. Unsurprisingly considering their production schedules, it’s the broadcast networks that are pivoting to reality and game show-heavy slates the earliest, particularly ABC.
The Disney-owned network will be relying heavily on “The Bachelor” franchise this coming fall thanks to the premiere of spin-off series “The Golden Bachelor,” which will feature an older suitor looking for a second chance at love. Out of the network’s 14 shows announced for the fall, 13 of those were unscripted, the only exception being reruns of “Abbott Elementary.”
Fox’s chaotic schedule (we’ll get to that) was only slightly more diverse due to its animation-heavy programming block. The network didn’t release an official schedule due to programming uncertainties caused by the strike. But of the 25 shows the network teased for the 2023-2024 season, 12 of them were unscripted and six were animated series, which Fox assured members of the press would be able to air new episodes “all year round.”
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NBC faired a bit better for the fall. It’s clear the network had some scripted series stockpiled prior to the strike. Of the 13 shows returning for the fall primetime season, only three of them — “The Voice,” “The Wall” and “Dateline NBC” — are unscripted. But that will change midseason, which will see three game shows airing as well as the 10-part documentary event “The Americas,” hosted by Tom Hanks. NBC’s summer is also set to be heavy on unscripted with “America’s Got Talent,” “Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge,” “American Ninja Warrior” and “LA Fire and Rescue” premiering in the coming weeks.
Even though CBS did not make an appearance at the upfronts due to Paramount’s decision to skip the event, its schedule largely mirrored NBC’s. Out of the 20 shows announced as part of its fall primetime schedule, four were unscripted. Those included expanded 90-minute episodes of both “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.”
Even networks and streamers that didn’t seem as immediately impacted by the WGA strike leaned into unscripted. For Warner Bros. Discovery, that meant announcing a partnership between ID and Michael Bay, a two-series partnership between Selena Gomez and the Food Network and unveiling the upcoming Max original “Conan O’Brien Must Go.” Even Netflix got in on the unscripted game, announcing premiere months for “Love Is Blind” Season 5 and “Squid Game: The Challenge.”
The bottom line? The longer the WGA strike continues, the more game shows, talk shows, competition shows and documentaries you can expect.
The other MVP of the upfronts was live sports
Sports are always a big part of any upfront, but this year they were the star for many networks. Heading into the fall, NBC will be dedicating both Saturday and Sunday to football, airing “Big Ten Saturday Night” and “NBC Sunday Night Football.” ABC won’t be as football-dependent, but it will still be dedicating its Saturdays to college ball.
But the most surprising sports moves came from TelevisaUnivision and The CW. The Mexican-American media company secured the Spanish-language rights to Super Bowl LVIII, marking the first time the company will broadcast the big game. The company also secured the rights to Copa América 2024, the South American soccer (or fútbol, if you prefer) championship, as well as its female counterpart, Copa América Femenina.
Then there’s The CW. This year, its new parent company, Nexstar, and LIV Golf entered a multi-year agreement that gave the network broadcasting and streaming rights to the professional golf league. According to CW president Dennis Miller, the network has been happy with this partnership, which has led to talks with “every league” in the current sports market.
Sports, reality and talk show stars can’t beat celebs
Traditionally, the upfronts are a chance for networks to flex to advertisers. They fly out the biggest names on their roster of upcoming shows — celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Tom Hanks — just so these huge stars can make a couple of jokes on stage and introduce a clip. But with the WGA strike in effect and SAG-AFTRA negotiations underway, there was no room for any of that expensive merriment.
Instead of charming stars, most networks recruited a mix of athletes, talking heads, reality regulars and executives. Entertainment-wise, it was a fairly bleak affair. Executives starred in “cute” sketches with all the enthusiasm and awkwardness of a middle schooler in theater camp, while professional athletes stoically read teleprompters with forced smiles. And those were the interesting segments.
When the upfronts were at their worst, they descended into mini versions of the talk shows they were promoting, like what happened during a promotion for Fox’s “The Five.”
There were rare celebrity sightings. Kim and Khloé Kardashian both appeared onstage as did several members of the “Real Housewives” franchise. Similarly, Reba McEntire, Nick Jonas, Luis Fonsi and Seth MacFarlane’s Ted all gave musical performances. But with the exception of TelevisiaUnivision, which was able to pull out all the stops, respect for the writers’ strike prevented most stars from crossing the picket line — literally.
NBCUniversal, The CW, Fox, ABC and Warner Bros. Discovery addressed the strike head-on
Speaking of the WGA strike, most networks acknowledged it in some way. Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Television, said the network was “grateful for the contribution writers make to our company” and that they “respect their right to demonstrate.” He also said the industry will “eventually” get through this and build “a stronger foundation on which we can all move forward together.”
Casey Bloys, CEO and chairman of content for HBO and HBO Max, expressed a similar sentiment, saying he was “hopeful that a fair resolution is found soon with writers that would, of course, return talent to this stage.” He also acknowledged that the return of the writers and stars would have made Warner Bros. Discovery’s upfront “a far more entertaining show.”
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The CW, Fox and ABC nods to the strike were more practical. During a press conference for The CW, president of entertainment Brad Schwartz revealed that the network crafted its overhauled programming slate knowing there was “potential” for a writers’ strike. The CW had a bigger challenge than most networks coming into the 2023-2024 season. Following its acquisition by Nexstar, the network has pivoted from young-adult programming to a more broadcast-focused slate.
“I don’t know if the writer strike really had too much of an impact because we knew we had to get stuff going really quickly,” Schwartz said.
Conversely, the strike had a large impact on Fox’s schedule. In a press conference that happened prior to Fox’s upfront, executives emphasized that the network chose not to release a schedule “that we may not be able to meet this fall.”
“Obviously, nobody wants this strike, and our thoughts go out to the writers at a moment,” said Rob Wade, CEO of Fox Entertainment. “We feel prepared to pivot as we need to. As you know, we just went through a global pandemic three years ago. We had original programming starting 16 days after the COVID pandemic began with our iHeart special.”
And though ABC never directly addressed the strike, they followed in Fox’s footsteps. A source with knowledge of the network’s schedule told TheWrap that ABC also tried to design a strike-proof schedule for the fall.
TelevisaUnivision and Netflix didn’t mention the strike
It’s understandable that TelevisaUnivision would ignore the WGA strike. The network’s focus on Latin American programming positions it as the one network during upfronts week that wasn’t directly impacted by the strike.
But that wasn’t the case for Netflix, which pointedly avoided any mention of the strike during its first-ever upfront. Like its peers, the streamer relied on clip after clip to showcase what it has in store for the rest of the year. But unlike its peers, Netflix canceled a planned in-person presentation, instead switching to a completely virtual event. Considering that many of the WGA Guild’s concerns have to do with the unfair working conditions of streamers, it was a glaring omission.
A handful of networks seemed unfazed
It also feels a bit unfair that Netflix — the biggest name in streaming during a time when most of Hollywood is screaming about the working conditions of streamers — emerged from the upfronts as one of the few networks with a largely unaffected schedule. Altogether, the streamer teased 26 series set to return in the 2023-2024 season, including major hits like “Emily in Paris,” “Wednesday,” “You,” “Squid Game,” “The Witcher,” “Stranger Things” and “The Crown,” which now has a Season 6 premiere date. Netflix also showed off 18 upcoming original movies, including “Extraction 2” and Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali’s “Leave the World Behind.”
That slate, which would be astronomically large to most other networks and streamers, is fairly standard for Netflix. It also only highlighted the big names, ignoring the foreign acquisitions, niche shows and unscripted content that Netflix pumps out on a weekly basis. For Netflix, it was business as usual. The only other networks that could claim that honor were FX, which announced premiere dates for seven shows and teased the long-awaited “Shogun,” and TelevisaUnivision.
No one was less prepared than Fox
Even though CBS skipped the upfronts, at least it was able to deliver a fall primetime schedule. The same thing can’t be said for Fox.
“We will hold back until we have a better handle on what programming will be available,” Dan Harrison, executive vice president of program planning and content strategy for Fox Entertainment, said in a conference call.
Here’s what we do know: six scripted dramas, one live-action comedy, six animated comedies and 12 unscripted series will be premiering on Fox on some day at some time in the future. Though the network promised that it would announce a schedule once the strike ends, what exactly is going to premiere after summer remains a mystery.
The CW has officially entered its awkward teen phase
Ahead of The CW’s press conference, advertisers and members of the press knew to expect an overhaul. But even with the Nextstar era in mind, The CW’s new slate was a shock. The network that built a name for itself as a hub for young-adult programming now only has two of its originals remaining: “Walker,” which is set to premiere its fourth season in the middle of the year, and “All American,” which is set to premiere Season 6 in the fall.
Instead of superhero shows and cute comedies about fashion-loving divas, the network aired a slate packed full of broad international acquisitions. There was everything from a family sitcom about coming of age in the ’80s from Andrew Phung (“Run the Burbs”) to an emotional drama about a neurosurgeon forced to return to her hometown from the team behind Netflix’s “Virgin River” (“Sullivan’s Crossing”). But the crown jewel of this new stage of the network was even less expected. “FBoy Island” and its gender-swapped spinoff, “FGirl Island,” were repeatedly highlighted throughout the presentation.
“The CW is now run by broadcasters whose only goal is to build a strong brand and cultivate emotional attachment to the largest audiences possible,” Schwartz said. “No longer will The CW be built for the benefit of two content studios. Now The CW is being built to maximize audience.”
Only time will tell how this eclectic lineup will fair. But in the meantime, it’s always fun to root for an underdog.
In the end, there were more questions than answers
In spite all of the flowery language about the importance of writers and the strike-proof schedules, the biggest takeaway of this upfront season was that there are no clear answers on how this will all unfold. Every presenter had at least one huge question around their lineup. For some, it was a major show that’s missing a showrunner (NBC’s “Law and Order: Organized Crime”). For others, it was a list of shows with unknown fates (ABC’s “Home Economics” and “The Rookie: Feds”; Fox’s “Welcome to Flatch” and “HouseBroken;” The CW’s “Superman and Louis,” “Gotham Knights” and “All American: Homecoming”). For still others, it was the lack of an entire schedule (hello again, Fox).
Then there are the series stuck in limbo. What’s going to happen to Fox’s “Doc” or “Rescue: HI-Surf”? When ABC reveal the fates of pilots still in contention, including the Felicity Huffman-led “Good Doctor” spin-off “The Good Lawyer,” “The Hurt Unit,” “Judgement,” “Keeping it Together” and “Public Defenders”? When will its staples return, like fan favorites “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Conners” and the newly-acquired “9-1-1”? Who can say? Certainly no one at the upfronts.
The upfronts made for a handy target for picketers
The timing of the upfronts was fortunate for striking WGA members. Besides Netflix taking its presentation virtual, Peacock’s NewFront fell victim on the first day of the strike, with writers yelling various chants including “Hey Peacock, you’re no good, treat your writers like you should,” and signs with jokes like “Fair contract or we’ll spoil ‘Succession.’”
“What we’re saying is TV is TV and the Peacock NewFronts, that’s TV,” WGA East council member Sasha Stewart, who has written for late-night and scripted comedy shows, told TheWrap during the picket. “It’s owned by NBCUniversal and so we should have the same rates that we have on Peacock as we do on NBC.”
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Disney, which held its presentation on May 16, was greeted by a crowd of WGA members outside New York City’s Javitz Center.
“Disney is just one of the companies we’re striking, but they’re not called the Tragic Kingdom for nothing, WGA East president Michael Winship told members. “They’ve always had a reputation as cheap skates toward their writers and they’re even worse now and that’s why we’re fighting them and the others to win this.”
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Winship told TheWrap that the current work stoppage has accumulated a larger degree of support than the 2007-2008 strike.
“Just in terms of force, of people power, we’ve just got an extraordinarily exponentially larger number of people out this time, who are fighting because they recognize the various issues that come with streaming,” Winship said.
TV reporter Loree Seitz and TV editor Jose Alejandro Bastidas contributed to this story.
For all of TheWrap’s WGA Strike coverage, click here.
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