There’s no good time for a Writers’ Guild strike, but the current time may be among the worst. On May 15, less than two weeks after WGA and AMPTP failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, TV Upfront Week begins, a time when network, cable and streaming executives woo advertisers with their most lavish presentations and their most glamorous talent. Only now is it without the talent and probably all the good jokes.
Kicking off the week on an awkward note is NBCUniversal’s Radio City Music Hall presentation, which opened with ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino, who is now best known as the new Twitter CEO. That afternoon will be Fox’s turn; set for the next few days are Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Netflix, which is now being forced to go virtual for New York’s pedestrian safety.
This was supposed to be the year that major streamers made waves (and in some cases, performed well) with advertisers. It was Netflix’s ad-supported platform’s anticipated debut (until WGA and NYPD got involved). This is the first year with Disney+ AVOD results. (Disney announced its ad-supported Disney+ tier a few months ahead of the 2022 advances, but the product didn’t launch until later this year.) HBO Max and Discovery+ will go “Max” six days after the advance. Warner Bros. Discovery, so you know it’s going to be a major talking point. However, with no actors and actresses to speak for, the thrill is gone.
Stages will feel emptier, presentations shorter, presentations a little stale, and a week of partying that will lose all the value of the selfies. With the picketing in full force (and expected outside each of the initial venues), no talent wanting jokes in scripted shows next season will be joining network executives on stage. That means no Jimmy Kimmel monologue roasts Disney TO Disney, that was THE the highlights for years, no lines from Seth Meyers during NBCUniversal and so on.
Red carpet presence will likely be limited to unscripted stars; think “The Real Housewives” at NBCU. Famous people from the worlds of news, sports, and music are also likely entrants (and performers, from that final category). There will also be pressure on them not to cross the picket line.
It will be up to the heads of the networks and their respective ad sales heads to fill the void left with no actual celebrities, hopefully with the assistance of a punch-up artist such as a comedy writer (but generally they’re WGA) or a speechwriter ( typically not WGA).
A person with knowledge of the scriptwriting process for a network beforehand told IndieWire that he believes this type of handwriting would still be OK under the WGA’s strike guidelines since a non-televised presentation to advertisers is neither a series nor a movie. That said, the person didn’t expect such a writer to cross a picket line, physically or figuratively, and attend the initiating event itself.
A second person in a similar position at a rival network said their executive talks are entirely trained by the company’s advertising and public relations teams. A source at a third network agreed with this, but acknowledged that the PR/communications group sometimes cracks jokes from trusted “friends,” including non-WGA writers and reporters.
Some initial scripts, at least early drafts, have been canned for weeks now. (At NBCU, Yaccarino is now in the trash can; Mark Lazarus is set to open their advance, which will require a very different script.) The upfront decisions, however, including pilot reshoots and the fate of existing bubble shows , can notoriously come at the last minute.
Speaking of those pilot pickups, another problem: Who exactly is going to be writing these new shows? Executives can’t responsibly promise a potential advertiser that any program they’re selling, new or returning, will be available sometime this fall; hell, even midseason is in the air. But at least the existing shows have established writers’ rooms, no matter how much dust those desks may collect.
Welcome to the 2023 upfronts; we are beyond Covid, but not out of trouble.