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TV Networks Court Advertisers At This Year's Upfronts


It used to be the biggest event of the TV season. But this year, the upfronts, where the big broadcast networks announce new shows and ask advertisers to buy commercials in them, have lost a little bit of their shine. Our TV critic Eric Deggans went to the upfront's cocktail parties and presentations in New York all this week.

Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

KING: (Laughter) So everybody's focused on the high-quality TV outlets like HBO, which has "Game Of Thrones," and Netflix. Are the networks just not as cool now?

DEGGANS: Certainly, they're fighting that perception. And every network is also part of a larger company that's gone through a lot of change. So Comcast-owned NBC and Disney-owned ABC - they've tried to get bigger to compete better with the Netflixes and the Amazons of the world. So NBC is starting its own streaming service next year that's free and supported by ads, and that's a big deal. Disney announced that it's going to take operational control of Hulu. And CBS is trying to keep going after a string of #MeToo and diversity-related controversies, including CNN's CEO and longtime hands-on leader Les Moonves forced to step down last year after harassment and assault allegations.

So TV makes a lot of money. You know, the last year's upfront did something like $9 billion in business. But they do have to convince the industry they're still cool but not frighten off the advertisers and traditional viewers.

KING: All right, so that's the business end of things. What about the shows? Did you see any new shows or new trends that you think were interesting?

DEGGANS: Well, it's interesting. Like, these networks, they're now cogs in a much bigger media machine, so they don't have the independence to take chances like they used to. But Kenan Thompson is going to star in a sitcom executive produced by Chris Rock called "The Kenan Show." And he's still going to appear on "Saturday Night Live." That'll be interesting. Nat Geo's "Genius" series is finally going to look at the life of a female nonwhite genius in Aretha Franklin.

And the show that won my heart is called "Mixed-ish." It's about the early years of this character on "Black-ish" called Rainbow Johnson, played by Tracee Ellis Ross. Now, this character grew up in the 1980s as a mixed race child. She was raised in a commune. And then all of a sudden, she has to go to a mainstream, regular school with her siblings. And it doesn't go so well. And we've got a little clip. Let's check it out.


TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) Imagine being the new kid when no one in the world is like you. Today's mixed kids can look up to rappers, ballerinas, athletes, a president and a princess. The only heroes we had were DeBarge.

KING: That sounds like a great show.

DEGGANS: It's pretty funny.

KING: I'm on board.

DEGGANS: And the kids are great.

KING: I'm 100% on board. There has been, as you know, a lot of consolidation in the media industry. And it's starting to seem as if a handful of companies are going to control most of what we watch - most of our entertainment. Do you find that worrying?

DEGGANS: Yeah, particularly when you have a network take an action that limits what you can see. I mean, I looked at Fox, for example. They seem to have canceled a lot of shows that starred African American characters - the comedies "Rel" and "The Cool Kids," "Lethal Weapon," "Star" and "Empire," which is going to end after its next season. And that's weird for a network that was once known to be this champion of onscreen diversity.

Disney is still working out how to integrate all these different channels into a single media company. Although I do like - on one of their channels called Freeform, they're doing a reboot of "Party Of Five" that features a Latinx family where the parents are deported, and the kids have to raise themselves in America. And that could be really interesting.

KING: Yeah.

DEGGANS: But, you know, I look at NBC. And they've got this show that's a new version of the 1999 movie "The Bone Collector."

KING: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: Now, I'm seeing some mixed messages there. That's all I'm saying.

KING: All right. Eric Deggans, our TV critic.

Thank you so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROID BISHOP'S "IN SEARCH OF GEMINI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.